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Are Prisons Obsolete? [Paperback]

Angela Y. Davis
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 5, 2003 1583225811 978-1583225813 0
With her characteristic brilliance, grace and radical audacity, Angela Y. Davis has put the case for the latest abolition movement in American life: the abolition of the prison. As she quite correctly notes, American life is replete with abolition movements, and when they were engaged in these struggles, their chances of success seemed almost unthinkable. For generations of Americans, the abolition of slavery was sheerest illusion. Similarly,the entrenched system of racial segregation seemed to last forever, and generations lived in the midst of the practice, with few predicting its passage from custom. The brutal, exploitative (dare one say lucrative?) convict-lease system that succeeded formal slavery reaped millions to southern jurisdictions (and untold miseries for tens of thousands of men, and women). Few predicted its passing from the American penal landscape. Davis expertly argues how social movements transformed these social, political and cultural institutions, and made such practices untenable.
In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Professor Davis seeks to illustrate that the time for the prison is approaching an end. She argues forthrightly for "decarceration", and argues for the transformation of the society as a whole.

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Editorial Reviews


"In this brilliant, thoroughly researched book, Angela Davis swings a wrecking ball into the racist and sexist underpinnings of the American prison system. Her arguments are well wrought and restrained, leveling an unflinching critique of how and why more than 2 million Americans are presently behind bars, and the corporations who profit from their suffering. Davis explores the biases that criminalize communities of color, politically disenfranchising huge chunks of minority voters in the process. Uncompromising in her vision, Davis calls not merely for prison reform, but for nothing short of 'new terrains of justice.' Another invaluable work in the Open Media Series by one of America's last truly fearless public intellectuals." Cynthia McKinney, former Congresswoman from Georgia -- Review

About the Author

ANGELA YVONNE DAVIS is a professor of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Over the last thirty years, she has been active in numerous organizations challenging prison-related repression. Her advocacy on behalf of political prisoners led to three capital charges, sixteen months in jail awaiting trial, and a highly publicized campaign then acquittal in 1972. In 1973, the National Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners, along with the Attica Brothers, the American Indian Movement and other organizations founded The National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, of which she remained co-chairperson for many years.

Product Details

  • Series: Open Media Series
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Seven Stories Press (August 5, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1583225811
  • ISBN-13: 978-1583225813
  • Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 5 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,542 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
64 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Urgent Appeal for Alternatives to Incarceration. January 19, 2004
It is almost too much for the human mind to fully comprehend that there are more than 2 million people--a group larger than the population of many countries-- presently behind bars in America. While serving as an elected official, I was given an extensive "tour" of one of the local prisons. I tried not to show the horror -and sorrow- I felt at the sight of so many human beings locked away in high tech cages, for fear my "tour" would be cut short.
This thoroughly researched book by Angela Davis articulates everything I instinctively felt when I got a first hand glimpse of prison life. With the patience and restraint of a Saint, Angela Davis challenges thinking people to face the human rights catastrophe in our jails and prisons.
It is the authors hope that this book will encourage readers to question their own assumptions about prison. It is my hope that this book will be widely read by everyone involved in the field of education and politics. It should be on the recommended reading list of all high schools, colleges and universities.
Suza Francina, former Mayor, Ojai, California, and author, The New Yoga for People Over 50.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
Following the over throw of reconstruction, the re-empowered white ruling class in the South needed a large pool of cheap labor. The Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, contained one glaring exception--slavery was still completely legal for those who had been convicted of a crime. Suddenly, new legislation was enacted which criminalized a wide variety of behaviors not previously considered criminal--having no job, vagrancy, no visible means of support, etc.
Once these "Black Codes" were in place, prisons in the South were rapidly filled with Blacks. Prior to the Civil War, prisoners in the South were overwhelmingly White. After Reconstruction, they were overwhelmingly Black.
These new prisoners were "leased" to White plantation owners, at a flat fee. With no capital invested in these new slaves, many were simply worked to death. The economic incentive to ensure that the prisons were full was inescapable.
In this short, but powerful, book, Angela Davis makes the case that this pattern of incarcerating Blacks, set during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, carries through to the present. Today the economics of incarceration are more subtle. Money is not primarily made through the labor of prisoners (although that still happens). Today, the real money is made by the underwriters who sell the bonds to finance prison construction, the myriad of industries which supply the country's 2 million prisoners with everything from soap to light bulbs, and by rural America, where the last three decades of de-industrialization has left prison as one of the very few decent paying union jobs available to formerly blue collar workers.
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45 of 53 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars theory heavy; not a good intro to prison issues August 6, 2004
By j.r.
This may just be the way I approach prison issues, but I believe that the current crisis in U.S. prisons -- overincarceration, privitization, horrific health problems, racism, inadequate educational programs -- do not necessarily need a wide historical analysis to call attention to themselves. I am, like Davis, a socialist, but I think the mess that is the prison industrial complex can be described in a way that will make liberals, not just radicals, agree that the system needs to change right away -- and I think that this is more important than focusing on the more abstract idea of prison abolition. When I heard her speak at a prisoner conference last year, she focused on the difference between being a prison reformer and a prison abolitionist: a difference that is addressed in this work. This book as a whole is an argument for prison abolition. But prison reform is more urgent, and more possible. I find it hard to focus on her arguments as a result.

I recommend to people interested in an intro to contemporary prison issues Christian Parenti's book Lockdown America -- he is as angry as Davis, but his book provides more statistical and descriptive evidence than she does as to why you should be angry as well. Articles written by prisoners themselves are collected in the 1998 collection The Celling of America ed by Daniel Burton-Rose and 2003's Prison Nation ed by T. Herivel and P. Wright. (Note that Prison Nation includes articles written by non-prisoners as well.)

Prison activists and those who are currently reading into the american prison system should read Davis' book, but I urge those looking for an introduction not to start here.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Prisons Aren't About Justice September 15, 2004
This book, while providing historical context, is not overly academic and is very readable. Davis presents some startling facts about the prison as a replacement for the plantation and about the intrinsic racism of capital punishment.

The division between prison reform and prison abolition is an artificial one that need not slow the progress of either prison reform or the development of abolitionist theory. I've heard Davis speak on the subject as well. She emphasizes the need to both insist that correctional institutions be reformed AND to acknowledge that there is no "just" way to incarcerate people at the rate that the US currently does.

Read this book to expand you field of vision about the alternatives to the current criminal justice system and to place these issues in historical context.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and extremely stimulating piece of work
Dr. Davis is a theoretician who brings an activists passion to her work. It is most illuminating about the nature of relationships that society in general has with prisons.
Published 2 months ago by Soham Bose
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most important readings of our time
Critically vital - the links and trajectory Davis spells out between slavery, capitalism, and prisons is one that people need to know about. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Lynn Liao
4.0 out of 5 stars The cost to the tax payer!
I am still reading the book, eager to learn more. In school full time right now , but plan to finish the book as soon as school is out. Ask me again, please!
Published 4 months ago by sheila jackson
4.0 out of 5 stars a wonderful and accessible read
Davis' work chronicles the history, evolution, and purpose of the prison, and leads us to the question with which she titled the book. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Kylie
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, informative, concise, and accessible.
This book gives a great deal of context about the modern prison system, from its current position in our economic structures, to its history in the Protestant ethic of solitary... Read more
Published 7 months ago by lauren binkovitz
5.0 out of 5 stars must read
This is a must read for all! It is insightful and right to the point. I truly believe prison are obsolete.
Published 8 months ago by Flor
The average person in the USA likely thinks like I did for many decades. Prisons are for sociopaths, most deserve at least their sentence, and the death penalty is possible in some... Read more
Published 8 months ago by James Schaller
5.0 out of 5 stars truth
Great topic, the prison industrial complex needs to be addressed... she brought up very valid points and gives a respectable viewpoint...
Published 10 months ago by skltnkiese
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read
This is a stimulating read and Angela does a great job of making the language clear and engaging. Great price, Quick Ship.
Published 10 months ago by A.B.
5.0 out of 5 stars She soldiers on!
I am just a bit younger than Angela Davis. In the headier days of her career, I used to think of her as a dangerous radical. But I was fooled by the media of those times. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Joan Wu
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