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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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"In this extraordinary book. Ang la Davis challenges
us to confront the human rights catastrophe In our
jails and prisons. As she so convincingly argues, the
contemporary U.S. practice of super-incarceration is
closer to new age slavery than to any recognizable
system of 'criminal justice.'"
-Mike Davis, author of Dead Cities and City of Quartz

"In this brilliant, thoroughly researched book.
Angela Davis swings a wrecking ball Into the racist
and sexist underpinnings of the American prison

Her arguments


well wrought


restrained, leveling an unflinching critique of how




2 million



presently behind bars, and the corporations who
profit from their suffering. Davis explores the bias­
es 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."
-formor ConQresswoman Cynthia McKinney

ISBN 1-58322-581-1





AnCJela Y. Davis

An Open Media Book

New York


© 2003 by Angela Y . Davis

Open Media series editor, Greg Ruggiero.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproiuced, stored in
a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, includ·
ing mechanical, electric, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the

written permission of the publisher.

In Canada: Publishers Group Canada, 250A Carlton Street, Toronto ,
In the U.K.: Turnaround Publisher Services Ltd., Unit 3, Olympia
Trading Estate, Coburg Road, Wood Green, London N22 6TZ

In Australia: PalgraveMa cmillan, 627 Chapel Street, South Yarra,
VIC 3141

ISBN·lO: 1·58322·581-1/ ISBN-I3: 978-1-58322-581-3
Printed in Canada.

7 6






. .




. .











. . .... . .7


Introduction-Prison Reform or Prison Abolition?


. 9





. 22

Slavery, Civil Rights, and Abolitionist

Perspectives Toward Prison . .


































. .


. . .40


















Cover design and photos: Greg Ruggiero



5 4 3

Imprisonment and Reform .




How Gender Structures the Prison System

The Prison Industrial Complex .

































. 105


Abolitionist Alteruatives ... . .




. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .116



































About the Author








































I should not be listed as the sole author of this book, for its
ideas reflect various forms of collaboration over the last six
years with activists, scholars, prisoners, and cultural work­
ers who have tried to reveal and contest the impact of the
prison industrial complex on the lives of people-within and
outside prisons-throughout the world. The organizing
committee for the 1998 Berkeley conference, Critical
Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, included
Bo (rita d. brown), Ellen Barry, Jennifer Beach, Rose Braz,
Julie Browne, Cynthia Chandler, Kamari Clarke, Leslie
DiBenedetto Skopek, Gita Drury, Rayne Galbraith, Ruthie
Gilmore, Naneen Karraker, Terry Kupers, Rachel Lederman,







Rosenblatt, Jane Segal, Cassandra Shaylor, Andrea Smith,
Nancy Stoller, Julia Sudbury, Robin Templeton, and Suran
Thrift. In the long process of coordinating plans for this con­
ference, which attracted over three thousand people, we
worked through a number of the questions that I raise in this
book. I thank the members of that committee, including
those who used the conference as a foundation to build the
organization Critical Resistance. In :2000, I was a member of
a University of California Humanities Research Institute
Resident Research Group and had the opportunity to partic-



ipate in regular discussions on many of these issues. I thank
the members of the group-Gina Dent, Ruth Gilmore,
Avery Gordon, David Goldberg, Nancy Schepper Hughes,






Introduction-Pris on Reform or
Pris on Abolition?

Cassandra Shaylor and I coauthored a report to the 2.001
World Conference Against Racism on women of color and
the prison industrial complex-a number of whose ideas
have made their way into this book. I have also drawn from
a number of other recent articles I have published in various
collections. Over the last five years Gina Dent and I have
made numerous presentations together, published together,
and engaged in protracted conversations on what it means to

In most parts of the world, it is taken for granted that who­

do scholarly and activist work that can encourage us all to

ever is convicted of a serious crime will be sent to prison. In

imagine a world without prisons. I thank her for reading the

some countries-including the United States-where capital

manuscript and I am deeply appreciative of her intellectual

punishment has not yet been abolished, a small but signifi­

and emotional support. Finally, I thank Greg Ruggiero, the

cant number of people are sentenced to death for what are

for his patience and encouragement.

editor of this

considered especially grave crimes. Many people are familiar
with the campaign to abolish the death penalty. In fact, it has
already been

abolished in most countries.

Even the

staunchest advocates of capital punishment acknowledge the
fact that the death penalty faces serious challenges. Few peo­
ple find life without the death penalty difficult to imagine.
On the other hand, the prison is considered an inevitable
and permanent feature of our social lives. Most people are
quite surprised to hear that the prison abolition movement
also has a long history-one that dates back to the historical
appearance of the prison as the main form of punishment. In
fact, the most natural reaction is to assume that prison
activists-even those who consciously refer to themselves as
" antiprison activists"-are simply trying to ameliorate
prison conditions or perhaps to reform the prison in more
fundamental ways. In most circles prison abolition is simply
unthinkable and implausible. Prison abolitionists are dis-

8 I Angela




missed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unre­


I first became

involved in antiprison activism dur­

alistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and fool­

ing the late 1 960s, I was astounded to learn that there were

ish. This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a

then close to two hundred thousand people in prison. Had

social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering

anyone told me that in three decades ten times as many peo­

people in dreadful plaees designed to separate them from

ple would be locked away in cages,

their communities and families. The prison is considered so

absolutely incredulous. I imagine that I would have respond­

"natural" that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.

ed something like this:



would have been

racist and undemocratic as this

It is my hope that this book will encourage readers to

country may be [remember, during that period, the demands

question their own assumptions about the prison. Many peo­

of the Civil Rights movement had not yet been consolidat­

ple have already reached the conclusion that the death penal­

edt I do not believe that the U.S. government will be able to

ty is an outmoded form of punishment that violates basic

lock up so many people without producing powerful public

principles of human rights. It is time, I believe, to encourage

resistance. No, this will never happen, not unless this coun­

similar conversations about the prison. During my own

try plunges into fascism." That might have been my reac­

career as an antiprison activist I have seen the population of

tion thirty years ago. The reality is that we were called upon

u.s. prisons increase with such rapidity that many people in

to inaugurate the twenty-first century by accepting the fact

black, Latino, and Native American communities now have

that two million

a far greater chance of going to prison than of getting a decent

of many countries-are living their lives in places like Sing

group larger than the population

education. When many young people decide to join the mili­

Sing, Leavenworth, San Quentin, and Alderson Federal

tary service in order to avoid the inevitability of a stint in

Reformatory for Women. The gravity of these numbers

prison, it should cause us to wonder whether we should not

becomes even more apparent when we consider that the

try to introduce better alternatives.

U.S. population in general is less than five percent of the

The question of whether the prison has become an obso­

world's total, whereas more than twenty percent of the

lete institution has become especially urgent in light of the

world's combined prison population can be claimed by the

fact that more than two million people (out of a world total

United States. In Elliott Currie's words, "[t]he prison has

of nine million! now inhabit U.S. prisons, jails, youth facili­

become a looming presence in our society to an extent

ties, and immigrant detention centers. Are we willing to rel­

unparalleled in our history or that of any other industrial

egate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed

democracy. Short of major wars, mass incarceration has

eommunities to an isolated existence marked by authoritari­

been the most thoroughly implemented government social

an regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion

program of our time."2

that produce severe mental instability? According to a recent

In thinking about the possible obsolescence of the prison,

study, there may be twice as many people suffering from

we should ask how it is that so many people could end up in

mental illness who are in jails and prisons than there are in

prison without major debates regarding the efficacy of incar­

all psychiatric hospitals in the United States combined.l

ceration. When the drive to produce more prisons and incar-

10 I Angela Y. Davis

A R E P R I SONS O B S O L ET E? 1 11

cerate ever larger numbers of people occurred in the 1980s

Facility for Women, were opened between 1984 and 1989.

during what is known as the Reagan era, politicians argued

Recall that it had taken more than a hundred years to build the

that "tough on crime" stances-including certain imprison­

first nine California prisons. In less than a single decade, the

ment and longer sentences-would keep communities free

number of California prisons doubled. And during the 1990s,

of mass incarceration during

twelve new prisons were opened, including two more for

of crime. However, the

that period had little or no effect on official crime rates. In

women. In 1995 the Valley State Prison for Women was

fact, the most obvious pattern was that larger prison popu­

opened. According to its mission statement, it "provides 1,980

lations led not to safer communities, but, rather, to even

women's beds for California's overcrowded prison system."

larger prison populations. Each new prison spawned yet

However, in 2002, there were 3,570 prisoners5 and the other

another new prison. And as the U.S. prison system expand­

two women's prisons were equally overcrowded.

ed, so did corporate involvement in construction, provision

There are now thirty-three prisons, thirty-eight camps, six­

labor. Because of the

teen community correctional facilities, and five tiny prisoner

extent to which prison building and operation began to

mother facilities in California. In 2002 there were 157,979

of goods and services, and use of

attract vast amounts of capital-from the construction

people incarcerated in these institutions, including approxi­

industry to food and health care provision-in a way that

mately twenty thousand people whom the state holds for

recalled the emergence of the military industrial complex,

immigration violations. The racial composition of this prison

we began to refer to a "prison industrial complex. "3

population is revealing. Latinos, who are now in the majority,

Consider the case of California, whose landscape has

account for 35.2 percentj African-Americans 30 percent; and

been thoroughly prisonized over the last twenty years. The

white prisoners 29.2 percent.6 There are now more women in

first state prison in California was San Quentin, which

prison in the state of California than there were in the entire

opened in 1852.4 Folsom, another well-known institution,

country in the early 1970s. In fact, California can claim the

opened in 1880. Between 1880 and 1933, when a facility for

largest women's prison in the world, Valley State Prison for

women was opened in Tehachapi, there was not a single new

Women, with its more than thirty-five hundred inhabitants.

prison constructed. In 1952, the California Institution for

Located in the same town as Valley State and literally across

Women opened and Tehachapi became a new prison for

the street is the second-largest women's prison in the world­

men. In all, between 1852 and 1955, nine prisons were con­

Central California Women's Facility-whose population in

structed in California. Between 1962 and 1965, two camps

2002 also hovered around thirty-five hundred.!

were established, along with the California Rehabilitation

If you look at a map of California depicting the location

Center. Not a single prison opened during the second half of

of the thirty-three state prisons, you will see that the only

the sixties, nor during the entire decade of the 1970s.
However, a massive project of prison construction was ini­

area that is not heavily populated by prisons is the area
north of Sacramento. Still, there are two prisons in the town

tiated during the 1980s-that is, during the years of the Reagan

of Susanville, and Pelican Bay, one of the state's notorious

presidency. Nine prisons, including the Northern California

super-maximum security prisons, is near the Oregon border.

12 1 Angela Y. Davis

A R E P R I S ONS O B S OL E T E ? 1 13

California artist Sandow Birle was inspired by the colonizing

occurred. At the same time, this promise of progress helps

of the landscape by prisons to produce a series of thirty-three

us to understand why the legislature and California's voters

landscape paintings of these institutions and their surround­

decided to approve the construction of all these new prisons.

ings. They are collected in his book Incarcerated: Visions of

People wanted to believe that prisons would not only reduce

California in tbe Twenty-first Century.8

crime, they would also provide jobs and stimulate econom­

I present this brief narrative of the prisonization of the

ic development in out-of-the-way places.

California landscape in order to allow readers to grasp how

At bottom, there is one fundamental question: Why do we

easy it was to produce a massive system of incarceration with

take prison for granted? While a relatively small proportion

the implicit consent of the public. Why were people so quick

of the population has ever directly experienced life inside

to assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion

prison, this is not true in poor black and Latino communi·

of the U.S. population would help those who live in the free

ties. Neither is it true for Native Americans or for certain

world feel safer and more secure? This question can be for­

Asian-American communities. But even among those people

mulated in more general terms. Why do prisons tend to make

who must regrettably accept prison sentences-especially

people think that their own rights and liberties are more

young people-as an ordinary dimension of community life,

secure than they would be if prisons did not exist? What other

it is hardly acceptable to engage in serious public discussions

reasons might there have been for the rapidity with which

about prison life or radical alternatives to prison. It is as if

prisons began to colonize the California landscape?

prison were an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death.

Geographer Ruth Gilmore describes the expansion of pris­

On the whole, people tend to take prisons for granted. It

ons in California as "a geographical solution to socia-eco­

is difficult to imagine life without them. At the same time,

nomic problems."9 Her analysis of the prison industrial com­

there is reluctance to face the realities hidden within them,

plex in California describes these developments as a response

a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus,

to surpluses of capital, land, labor, and state capacity.

the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is
absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous

California's new prisons are sited on devalued rural

presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part

land, most, in fact on formerly irrigated agricultur­

played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our

al acres . . . The State bought land sold by big

social surroundings. We take prisons for granted but are

landowners. And the State assured the small,

often afraid to face the realities they produce. After all, no

depressed towns now shadowed by prisons that the

one wants to go to prison. Because it would be too agonizing

new, recession-proof, non-polluting industry would

to cope with the possibility that anyone, including our­

jump-start local redevelopment.lO

selves, could become a prisoner, we tend to think of the
prison as disconnected from our own lives. This is even true

But, as Gilmore points out, neither the jobs nor the more
general economic revitalization promised by prisons has

14 1 Angela



for some of us, women as well as men, who have already
experienced imprisonment.

A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ETE? 1 1 5

We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for
others, a fate reserved for the "evildoers," to use a term
recently popularized by George W. Bush. Because of the per­
sistent power of racism, criminals" and IIevildoers" are, in
the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color. The
prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site
into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the
responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those
communities from which prisoners are drawn in such dispro­
portionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the
prison performs-it relieves us of the responsibility of seri­
ously engaging with the problems of our society, especially
those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.
What, for example, do we miss if we try to think about
prison expansion without addressing larger economic devel­
opments? We live in an era of migrating corporations. In
order to escape organized labor in this country-and thus
higher wages, benefits, and so on-corporations roam the
world in search of nations providing cheap labor pools. This
corporate migration thus leaves entire communities in
shambles. Huge numbers of people lose jobs and prospects
for future jobs. Because the economic base of these commu­
nities is destroyed, education and other surviving social
services are profoundly affected. This process turns the men,
women, and children who live in these damaged communi­
ties into perfect candidates for prison.
In the meantime, corporations associated with the pun­
ishment industry reap profits from the system that manages
prisoners and acquire a clear stake in the continued growth
of prison populations. 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

16 1 Angela Y. Davis

wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions
that lead people to prison. There are thus real and often quite
complicated connections between the deindustrialization of
the economy-a process that reached its peak during the
1980s-and the rise of mass imprisonment, which also began
to spiral during the Reagan-Bush era. However, 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 sta­
tistics were already falling. Moreover, draconian drug laws
were being enacted, and "three-strikes" provisions were on
the agendas of many states.
In order to understand the proliferation of prisons and the
rise of the prison industrial complex, it might be helpful to
think further about the reasons we so easily take prisons for
granted. In California, as we have seen, almost two-thirds of
existing prisons were opened during the eighties and
nineties. Why was there no great outcry? Why was there
such an obvious level of comfort with the prospect of many
new prisons? A partial answer to this question has to do
with the way we consume media images of thc prison, even
as the realities of imprisonment are hidden from almost all
who have not had the misfortune of doing time. Cultural
critic Gina Dent has pointed out that our sense of familiari­
ty with the prison comes in part from representations of
prisons in film and other visual media.
The history of visuality linked to the prison is also
a main reinforcement of the institution of the
prison as a naturalized part of our social landscape.
The history of film has always been wedded to the
representation of incarceration. Thomas Edison's
A R E P R I S O N S O B S OL E T E ? 1 17

first films (dating back to the 1901 reenactment pre­

exist. It has become so much a part of our lives that it

sented as newsreel,

requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life

Execution of Czolgosz with
Panorama of Auburn Prison) included footage of

beyond the prison.

the darkest recesses of the prison. Thus, the prison

This is not to dismiss the profound changes that have

is wedded to our experience of visuality, creating

occurred in the way public conversations about the prison

also a sense of its permanence as an institution. We

are conducted. Ten years ago, even as the drive to expand the

also have a constant flow of Hollywood prison

prison system reached its zenith, there were very few cri­

films, in fact a genreJl

tiques of this process available to the public. In factI most
people had no idea about the immensity of this expansion.

Some of the most well known prison films are: I Want to
Live, Papillon, Cool Hand Luke, and Escape from Alcatraz.

This was the period during which internal changes-in part

It also bears mentioning that television programming has

prison system in a much more repressive direction. Whereas

become increasingly saturated with images of prisons. Some

previous classifications had been confined to low, medium,

through the application of new technologies-led the U.S.

The Big

and maximum security, a new category was invented-that

House, which consists of programs on San Quentin,

of the super-maximum security prison, or the supermax.

Alcatraz, Leavenworth, and Alderson Federal Reformatory

The turn toward increased repression in a prison system,

for Women. The long-running HBO program

distinguished from the beginning of its history by its repres­

recent documentaries include the A&E series

Oz has man­

aged to persuade many viewers that they know exactly what

sive regimes, caused some journalistsl public intellectualsl

goes on in male maximum-security prisons.

and progressive agencies to oppose the growing reliance on

But even those who do not consciously decide to watch a
documentary or dramatic program on the topic of prisons

prisons to solve social problems that are actually exacerbat­
ed by mass incarceration.

inevitably consume prison images, whether they choose to

In 1990, the Washington-based Sentencing Project pub­

or not, by the simple fact of watching movies or TV. It is vir­

lished a study of U.S. populations in prison and jail, and on

tually impossible to avoid consuming images of prison. In

parole and probation, which concluded that one in four

1997, I was myself quite astonished to find, when I inter­

black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were

viewed women in three Cuban prisons, that most of them

among these numbers.12 Five years later, a second study

narrated their prior awareness of prisons-that is, before

revealed that this percentage had soared to almost one in

they were actually incarcerated-as coming from the many

three (32.2 percent). Moreover, more than one in ten Latino

Hollywood films they had seen. The prison is one of the

men in this same age range were in jail or prison,

most important features of our image environment. This has

bation or parole. The second study also revealed that the

caused us to take the existence of prisons for granted. The

group experiencing the greatest increase was black women,

prison has become a key ingredient of our common sense. It

whose imprisonment increased by seventy-eight percent.13

is there, all around us. We do not question whether it should

According to the Bureau of Tustice Statistics, African-

18 I A n gela




on pro­

A R E P R I S O N S O B S O LETE? 1 19

Americans as a whole now represent the majority of state
and federal prisoners, with a total of 803,400 black
inmates-118,600 more than the total number of white
inmates.14 During the late 1990s major articles on prison
expansion appeared in

Newsweek, Harper's, Emerge, and
Atlantic Monthly. Even Colin Powell raised the question of
the rising number of black men in prison when he spoke at

"crime" and of the social and economic conditions that
track so many children from poor communities, and espe­
Cially communities of color, into the juvenile system and
then on to prison. 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.

the 2000 Republican National Convention, which declared
George W. Bush its presidential candidate.
Over the last few years the previous absence of critical
positions on prison expansion in the political arena has
given way to proposals for prison reform. While public dis­
course has become more flexible, the emphasis is almost
inevitably on generating the changes that will produce a bet­

ter prison system. In other words, the increased flexibility
that has allowed for critical discussion of the problems asso­
ciated with the expansion of prisons also restricts this dis­
cussion to the question of prison reform.
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. Debates 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. The most immediate question today is how to prevent
the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring
as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into
what prisoners call lithe free world." How can we move to
decriminalize drug use and the trade in sexual services?
How can we take seriously strategies of restorative rather
than exclusively punitive justice? Effective alternatives
involve both transformation of the techniques for addressing

2 0 I Angela Y. Davis

A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L E T E? 1 21

dominant media of the period as extremists and fanatics.


When Frederick Douglass embarked on his career as an anti­


Civil RiQhts, and

Abolitionist Perspectives Toward

slavery orator, white people-even those who were passion­
ate abolitionists-refused to believe that a black slave could
display such intelligence. The belief in the permanence of
slavery was so widespread that even white abolitionists


found it difficult to imagine black people as equals.
It took a long and violent civil war in order to legally dis­
establish the "peculiar institution. II Even though the
Thirteenth Amendment to the u.s. Constitution outlawed
involuntary servitude, white supremacy continued to be
embraced by vast numbers of people and became deeply

Advocates of incarceration .. . hoped that the peniten­
tiary would rehabilitate its inmates. Whereas philoso­
phers perceived a ceaseless state of war between chattel
slaves and their masters, criminologists hoped to negoti­

ate a peace treaty of sorts within the prison walls. Yet
herein lurked a paradox: if the penitentiary's internal
regime resembled that of the plantation so closely that the
two were often loosely equated, how could the prison pos­
sibly function to rehabilitate criminals? "
-Adam Jay Hirsch15

inscribed in new institutions. One of these post-slavery
institutions was lynching, which was widely accepted for
many decades thereafter. Thanks to the work of figures such
as Ida B. Wells, an antilynching campaign was gradually
legitimized during the first half of the twentieth century.
The NAACP, an organization that continues to conduct
legal challenges against discrimination, evolved from these
efforts to abolish lynching.
Segregation ruled the South until it was outlawed a cen­
tury after the abolition of slavery. Many people who lived

The prison is not the only institution that has posed complex

under Jim Crow could not envision a legal system defined by

challenges to the people who have lived with it and have

racial equality. When the governor of Alabama personally

become so inured to its presence that they could not con­

attempted to prevent Arthurine Lucy from enrolling in the

ceive of society without it. Within the history of the United

University of Alabama, his stance represented the inability

States the system of slavery immediately comes to mind.

to imagine black and white people ever peaceably living and

Although as early as the American Revolution antislavery

studying together. "Segregation today, segregation tomor­

advocates promoted the elimination of African bondage, it

row, segregation forever" are the most well known words of

took almost a century to achieve the abolition of the "pecu­

this politician, who was forced to repudiate them some

liar institution." White antislavery abolitionists such as John

years later when segregation had proved far more vulnerable

Brown and William Lloyd Garrison were represented in the

than he could have imagined.
Although government, corporations, and the dominant


A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ET E ? 1 23

me dia try to rep resent racism as an unfo rtun ate abe rration o f

who re ape d dire ct bene fits from this dre adful s ystem of racist

t he p ast t hat has bee n re legate d to t he graveyard o f u.s. his­

explo it at ion . A nd even t ho ugh t he re was widespre ad res ist ­

contempo rary

ance among black s laves, t he re we re even some amo ng t hem

structures, att itudes, and be havio rs. Nevertheless , anyo ne

who ass ume d t hat t he y and t he ir p ro ge ny wo uld be always

who would dare to call for t he reintro duct ion o f slave ry, t he

s ubje cte d to t he t yranny o f s lave ry.

tory, it continues to p ro fo undly in flue nce

o rganiz at ion o f lynch mobs, or the reestablishme nt of le gal

I have int ro duce d t hree abo lit io n campaigns t hat we re

segre gatio n would be s umm arily dismissed. B ut it s hould be

event ually mo re o r less s uccessful to m ake t he point that

remembe re d t hat the an cestors o f m any o f to day's most

so cial circumstan ces t rans fo rm an d popular att it udes s hift,

ardent libe rals co uld not have im agi ne d life without s lave ry,

in p art in respo nse to o rganize d so cial movements . B ut I

life without lynching, o r life without se gregation. The 2001

have also evo ke d t hese historical camp aigns be cause t he y all

World Confe re n ce Against Racism , Racial D is crim in ation,

t argete d some expressio n o f racism. U . S. chattel s lave ry was

Xenophobia, and Re late d I ntole rances he ld in D urban, South

a s ystem o f force d labor t hat re lie d o n racist ide as and be liefs

Afr ica, div ulge d t he immensity of the global t as k of elim in at­

to j ustify t he re le gat io n o f people o f African des cent to t he

ing racism . The re m ay be m any dis agreements re garding what

le gal st atus o f p ropert y. L yn chi ng was an extrale gal instit u­

counts as racism and what are t he most ef fe ct ive s tr ategies to

t io n t hat s urren de re d t housan ds of African-Ame rican lives

e lim in ate it. However, espe cially wit h t he do wnfall o f t he

to t he v io lence o f ruthless racist mobs. Un de r se gre gat io n,

ap arthe id regime in Sout h A frica, the re is a global conse ns us

black people we re le gally de clare d se cond- class citize ns, fo r

t hat racism s hould not de fine the fut ure of the planet.

whom votin g, jo b, e ducat io n, an d hous ing ri ghts were dras ­

I have re fe rre d to t hese historical ex amp les o f e ffo rts to

t ically curt aile d, if t he y we re av ailable at all.

dism ant le racist inst itutions be cause t he y have co ns ide rable

What is the relat ions hip between t hese historical expres­

re lev an ce to o ur dis cuss io n o f p riso ns and p rison abo lit io n. It

s ions of racism an d the ro le o f t he p rison s ystem to day?

is t rue t hat s lave ry, lynching, and segre gation acquire d such

Explo ring s uch co nne ct io ns m ay o ffe r us a diffe rent pe rspec­

a stalwa rt ideologi cal q ualit y that many, if not most, co uld

t ive on t he current state of t he p unishme nt indust ry. I f we

not fo resee t he ir de cline and co llapse. S lave ry, lyn ching, an d

are alre ady pe rsuade d t hat racism s ho uld not be allo we d to

se gre gat ion are cert ainly compe llin g ex amples of so cial inst i­

de fine t he p lanet's future an d if we can s uccess fully argue

t utions t hat, like the p rison, were once cons ide re d to be as

t hat p riso ns are racist instit ut io ns, t his m ay le ad us to t ake

eve rlasting as t he s un. Yet, in t he case o f all t hree examp les,

se rious ly t he p rospe ct o f de claring p risons obso lete.

we can point to movements t hat ass ume d t he radical stance

Fo r t he moment I am co ncent ratin g on the history o f

o f anno uncing t he o bsoles cence of t hese instit ut ions . It m ay

ant iblack racism i n o rde r t o m ake th e point t hat t he p riso n

help us gain p e rspe ct ive on t he p rison if we t ry to im agine

reveals conge ale d fo rms o f ant iblack racism that ope rate in

how stran ge and dis com fo rt ing t he de bates about t he obso ­

clandest ine ways. I n othe r words , t he y are rare ly re cognize d

les ce nce o f s lave ry must have bee n to t hose who took t he

as racist. B ut t he re are othe r racialize d histories t hat have

"pe culiar i nst it ut ion" fo r gr ante d-an d espe cially to t hose

affe cte d t he deve lopment of t he U . S. p unis hment s ystem as

24 1 Angela



A R E P R I S O N S O BS O LETE? 1 2 5


against this new system of punishment during the revolu­

Asian-Americans. These racisms also congeal and combine

tionary period, the penitentiary was generally viewed as a

well-the histories of Latinos, Native Americans,

in the prison. Because we are so accustomed to talking about

progressive reform, linked to the larger campaign for the

race in terms of black and white, we often fail to recognize

rights of citizens.

and contest expressions of racism that target people of color
who are not black. Consider the mass arrests and detention

In many ways, the penitentiary


a vast improvement

over the many forms of capital and corporal punishment

of people of Middle Eastern, South Asian, or Muslim her­

inherited from the English. However, the contention that

itage in the aftermath of the September 1 1, 2001 attacks on

prisoners would refashion themselves if only given the

the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

opportunity to reflect and labor in solitude and silence dis­

This leads us to two important questions: Are prisons

regarded the impact of authoritarian regimes of living and

racist institutions? Is racism so deeply entrenched in the

work. Indeed, there were significant similarities between

institution of the prison that it is not possible to eliminate

slavery and the penitentiary prison. Historian Adam Jay

one without eliminating the other? These are questions that

Hirsch has pointed out:

we should keep in mind as we examine the historical links
between U.S. slavery and the early penitentiary system. The

One may perceive in the penitentiary many reflec­

penitentiary as an institution that simultaneously punished

tions of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the

and rehabilitated its inhabitants was a new system of pun­

South. Both institutions subordinated their subjects

ishment that first made its appearance in the United States

to the will of others. Like Southern slaves, prison

around the time of the American Revolution. This new sys­

inmates followed a daily routine specified by their

tem was based on the replacement of capital and corporal

superiors. Both institutions reduced their subjects to

punishment by incarceration.

dependence on others for the supply of basic human

Imprisonment itself was new neither to the United States

services such as food and shelter. Both isolated their

nor to the world, but until the creation of this new institu­

subjects from the general population by confining

tion called the penitentiary, it served as a prelude to punish­

them to a fixed habitat. And both frequently coerced

ment. People who were to be subjected to some form of cor­

their subjects to work, often for longer hours and for

poral punishment were detained in prison until the execu­

less compensation than free laborers.l6

tion of the punishment. With the penitentiary, incarceration
became the punishment itself. As is indicated in the desig­

As Hirsch has observed, both institutions deployed simi­

nation "penitentiary," imprisonment was regarded as reha­

lar forms of punishment, and prison regulations were, in fact,

bilitative and the penitentiary prison was devised to provide

very similar to the Slave Codes-the laws that deprived

convicts with the conditions for reflecting on their crimes

enslaved human beings of virtually all rights. Moreover, both

and, through penitence, for reshaping their habits and even

prisoners and slaves were considered to have pronounced

their souls. Although some antislavery advocates spoke out

proclivities to crime. People sentenced to the penitentiary in

26 1 Angela Y. Davis

A R E P R I SONS O B S O L ET E ? 127

the North, white and black alike, were popularly represented
as having a strong kinship to enslaved black people.17
The ideologies governing slavery and those governing
punishment were profoundly linked during the earliest
period of U.S. history. While free people could be legally
sentenced to punishment by hard labor, such a sentence
would in no way change the conditions of existence already
experienced by slaves. Thus, as Hirsch further reveals,
Thomas Jefferson, who supported the sentencing of con­
victed people to hard labor on road and water projects, also
pointed out that he would exclude slaves from this sort of
hard labor, sen­
punishment. Since slaves already
tencing them to penal labor would not mark a difference in
their condition. Jefferson suggested banishment to other
countries instead. is
race has always played
Particularly in the United
a central role in constructing presumptions of criminality.
After the abolition of slavery, former slave states passed
new legislation revising the Slave Codes in order to regulate
the behavior of free blacks in ways similar to those that had
existed during slavery. The new Black Codes proscribed a
range of actions-such as vagrancy, absence from work,
breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and
insulting gestures or acts-that were criminalized only
when the person charged was black. With the passage of the
Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery and
involuntary servitude were putatively abolished. However,
there was a significant exception. In the wording of the
amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude were abol­
ished "except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party
shall have been duly convicted. II According to the Black
Codes, there were crimes defined by state law for which
only black people could be "duly convicted." Thus, former
28 I Angela Y. Davis

slaves, who had recently been extricated from a eondition
of hard labor for life, could be legally sentenced to p enal
In the immediate aftermath of slavery, the southern states
hastened to develop a criminal justice system that could
legally restrict the possibilities of freedom for newly released
slaves. Black people became the prime targets of a developing
convict lease system, referred to by many as a reincarnation
of slavery. The Mississippi Black Codes, for example,
declared vagrant /I anyone/who was guilty of theft, had run
away [from a job, apparently], was drunk, was wanton in con­
duct or speech, had neglected job or family, handled money
carelessly, and . . . all other idle and disorderly persons. "19
Thus, vagrancy was coded as a black crime, one punishable
by incarceration and forced labor, sometimes on the very
plantations that previously had thrived on slave labor.
Mary Ellen Curtin's study of Alabama prisoners during
the decades following emancipation discloses that before the
four hundred thousand black slaves in that state were set
free, ninety-nine percent of prisoners in Alabama's peniten­
tiaries were white. As a consequence of the shifts provoked
by the institution of the Black Codes, within a short period
of time, the overwhelming majority of Alabama's convicts
were black.2o She further observes:
Although the vast majority of Alabama's antebel­
were white, the popular perception
was that the South's true criminals were its black
the 1870s the growing number of
black prisoners in the South further buttressed the
belief that African Americans were inherently
criminal and, in particular, prone to larceny.21

A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ETE? ! 29

In 1883, Frederick Douglass had already written about

lation. Police departments in major urban areas have admit­

the South's tendency to "impute crime to color."22 When a

ted the existence of formal procedures designed to maximize

particularly egregious crime was committed, he noted, not

the numbers of African-Americans and Latinos arrested­

only was guilt frequently assigned to a black person regard­

even in the absence of probable cause. In the aftermath of

less of the perpetrator's race, but white men sometimes

the September 11 attacks, vast numbers of people of Middle

sought to escape punishment by disguising themselves as

Eastern and South Asian heritage were arrested and detained

black. Douglass would later recount one such incident that


took place in Granger County, Tennessee, in which a man

Naturalization Services (INS). The INS is the federal agency








who appeared to be black was shot while committing a rob­

that claims the largest number of armed agents, even more

bery. The wounded man, however, was discovered to be a

than the FBJ.24

respectable white citizen who had colored his face black.

During the post-slavery era, as black people were inte­

The above example from Douglass demonstrates how

grated into southern penal systems--and as the penal sys­

whiteness, in the words of legal scholar Cheryl Harris, oper­
ates as property.23 According to Harris, the fact that white

associated with slavery became further incorporated into

identity was possessed as property meant that rights, liber-

the penal system. "Whipping," as Matthew Mancini has

tem became a system of penal servitude-the punishments

and self-identity were affirmed for white people, while

observed, "was the preeminent form of punishment under

being denied to black people. The latter's only access to

slaverYi and the lash, along with the chain, became the very

whiteness was through "passing." Douglass's comments

emblem of servitude for slaves and prisoners. "25 As indicat­

indicate how this property interest in whiteness was easily

ed above, black people were imprisoned under the laws

reversed in schemes to deny black people their rights to due

assembled in the various Black Codes of the southern states,

process. Interestingly, cases similar to the one Douglass dis­

which, because they were rearticulations of the Slave Codes,

cusses above emerged in the United States during the 1990s:

tended to racialize penality and link it closely with previous

in Boston, Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife and

regimes of slavery. The expansion of the convict lease sys­

attempted to blame an anonymous black man, and in

tem and the county chain gang meant that the antebellum

Union, South Carolina, Susan Smith killed her children and

criminal justice system, which focused far more intensely

claimed they had been abducted by a black carjacker. The

on black people than on whites, defined southern criminal

racialization of crime-the tendency to "impute crime to

justice largely as a means of controlling black labor.

color," to use Frederick Douglass's words-did not wither

According to Mancini:

away as the country became increasingly removed from
slavery. Proof that crime continues to be imputed to color

Among the multifarious debilitating legacies of

resides in the many evocations of "racial profiling" in our

slavery was the conviction that blacks could only

time. That it is possible to be targeted by the police for no

labor in a certain way-the way experience had

other reason than the color of one's skin is not mere specu-

shown them to have labored in the past: in gangs,

30 I Angela Y. Davis

A R E P R I S O N S O B S OLETE? 1 31

subjected to constant supervision, and under the

malaria, frostbite, consumption, sunstroke, dysen­

discipline of the lash. Since these were the requi­

tery, gunshot wounds, and"shaclde poisoning" (the

sites of slavery, and since slaves were blacks,

constant rubbing of chains and leg irons against

Southern whites almost universally concluded that

bare £leshJ.29

blacks could not work unless subjected to such
intense surveillance and discipline.26

The appalling treatment to which convicts were subject­
ed under the lease system recapitulated and further extend­

Scholars who have studied the convict lease system point

ed the regimes of slavery. If, as Adam Tay Hirsch contends,

out that in many important respects, convict leasing was far

the early incarnations of the U.S. penitentiary in the North

worse than slavery, an insight that can be gleaned from titles

tended to mirror the institution of slavery in many impor­

such as

One Dies, Get Another (by Mancini), Worse Than

tant respects, the post-Civil War evolution of the punish­

Slavery (David Oshinsky's work on Parchman Prison),2 7 and
Twice the Work of Free Labor (Alex Lichtenstein's examina­
tion of the political economy of convict leasing).28 Slave

ment system was in very literal ways the continuation of a
slave system, which was no longer legal in the "free" world.
The population of convicts, whose racial composition was

owners may have been concerned for the survival of indi­

dramatically transformed by the abolition of slavery, could

vidual slaves, who, after all, represented significant invest­

be subjected to such intense exploitation and to such hor­

ments. Convicts, on the other hand, were leased not as indi­

rendous modes of punishment precisely because they con­

viduals, but as a group, and they could be worked literally to

tinued to be perceived as slaves.

death without affecting the profitability of a convict crew.
According to descriptions by contemporaries, the condi­

Historian Mary Ann Curtin has observed that many schol­
ars who have acknowledged the deeply entrenched racism of

tions under which leased convicts and county chain gangs

the post-Civil War structures of punishment in the South have

lived were far worse than those under which black people

failed to identify the extent to which racism colored common­

had lived as slaves. The records of Mississippi plantations in

sense understandings of the circumstances surrounding the

the Yazoo Delta during the late 1880s indicate that

wholesale criminalization of black communities. Even
antiracist historians, she contends, do not go far enough in

the prisoners ate and slept on bare ground, without

examining the ways in which black people were made into

blankets or mattresses, and often without clothes.

criminals. They point out-and this, she says, is indeed par­

They were punished for "slow hoeing" (ten lashes),

tially true-that in the aftermath of emancipation, large num­

"sorry planting" (five lashes), and"being light with

(five lashes). Some who attempted to

bers of black people were forced by their new social situation
to steal in order to survive. It was the transformation of petty

escape were whipped"till the blood ran down their

thievery into a felony that relegated substantial numbers of

legs"; others had a metal spur riveted to their feet.

black people to the "involuntary servitude" legalized by the

Convicts dropped from exhaustion, pneumonia,

Thirteenth Amendment. What Curtin suggests is that these

32 1 Angela Y. Davis

A R E P R I S O N S O B SOLETE? 1 33

charges of theft were frequently fabricated outright. They
"also served as subterfuge for political revenge. After emanci­
pation the courtroom became an ideal place to exact racial ret­
ribution."3o In this sense, the work of the criminal justice sys­
tem was intimately related to the extralegal work of lynching.
Alex Lichtenstein, whose study focuses on the role of the
convict lease system in forging a new labor force for the
South, identifies the lease system, along with the new Jim
Crow laws, as the central institution in the development of
a racial state.
New South capitalists in Georgia and elsewhere
were able to use the state to recruit and discipline a
convict labor force, and thus were able to develop
their states' resources without creating a wage labor
force, and without undermining planters' control of
black labor. In fact, quite the opposite: the penal
system could be used as a powerful sanction against
rural blacks who challenged the racial order upon
which agricultural labor control relied.31
Lichtenstein discloses, for example, the extent to which
the building of Georgia railroads during the nineteenth cen­
tury relied on black convict labor. He further reminds us
that as we drive down the most famous street in Atlanta­
Peachtree Street-we ride on the backs of convicts: " [TJhe
renowned Peachtree Street and the rest of Atlanta's well­
paved roads and modern transportation infrastructure,
which helped cement its place as the commercial hub of the
modern South, were originally laid by convicts."32
Lichtenstein's major argument is that the convict lease
was not an irrational regression; it was not primarily a
throwback to precapitalist modes of production. Rather, it
34 I Angela Y. Davis

was a most efficient and most rational deployment of racist
strategies to swiftly achieve industrialization in the South.
In this sense, he argues, "convict labor was in many ways in
the vanguard of the region's first tentative, ambivalent, steps
toward modernity. "33
Those of us who have had the opportunity to visit nine­
teenth-century mansions that were originally constructed
on slave plantations are rarely content with an aesthetic
appraisal of these structures, no matter how beautiful they
may be. Sufficient visual imagery of toiling black slaves cir­
culate enough in our environment for us to imagine the bru­
tality that hides just beneath the surface of these wondrous
mansions. We have learned how to recognize the role of
slave labor, as well as the racism it embodied. But black con­
vict labor remains a hidden dimension of our history. It is
extremely unsettling to think of modern, industrialized
urban areas as having been originally produced under the
racist labor conditions of penal servitude that are often
described by historians as even worse than slavery.
I grew up in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Because of
its mines-coal and iron ore-and its steel mills that
remained active until the deindustrialization process of the
1980s, it was widely known as "the Pittsburgh of the
South. " The fathers of many of my friends worked in these
mines and mills. It is only recently that I have learned that
the black miners and steelworkers I knew during my child­
hood inherited their place in Birmingham's industrial devel­
opment from black convicts forced to do this work under the
lease system. As Curtin observes,
Many ex-prisoners became miners because Alabama
used prison labor extensively in its coalmines. By
1888 all of Alabama's able male prisoners were leased
A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ET E ? I 35

to two major mining companies: the Tennessee Coal
and Iron Company (TCI) and Sloss Iron and Steel
Company. For a charge of up to $ 18.50 per month per
man, these corporations "leased," or rented prison
laborers and worked them in coalmines.34
Learning about this little-acknowledged dimension of
black and labor history has caused me to reevaluate my own
childhood experiences.
One of the many ruses racism achieves is the virtual era­
sure of historical contributions by people of color. Here we
have a penal system that was racist in many respects-dis­
criminatory arrests and sentences, conditions of work,
modes of punishment-together with the racist erasure of
the significant contributions made by black convicts as a
result of racist coercion. Just as it is difficult to imagine how
much is owed to convicts relegated to penal servitude during
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we find it difficult
today to feel a connection with the prisoners who produce a
rising number of commodities that we take for granted in our
daily lives. In the state of California, public colleges and uni­
versities are provided with furniture produced by prisoners,
the vast majority of whom are Latino and black.
There are aspects of our history that we need to interro­
gate and rethink, the recognition of which may help us to
adopt more complicated, critical postures toward the pres­
ent and the future. I have focused on the work of a few schol­
ars whose work urges us to raise questions about the past,
present, and future. Curtin, for example, is not simply con­
tent with offering us the possibility of reexamining the place
of mining and steelwork in the lives of black people in
Alabama. She also uses her research to urge us to think
about the uncanny parallels between the convict lease sys36 I Angela Y. Davis

tem in the nineteenth century and prison privatization in
the twenty-first.
In the late nineteenth century, coal companies
wished to keep their skilled prison laborers for as
long as they could, leading to denials of "short
time. " Today, a slightly different economic incen­
tive can lead to similar consequences. CCA
[Corrections Corporation of America] is paid per
prisoner. If the supply dries up, or too many are
released too early, their profits are affected . . .
Longer prison terms mean greater profits, but the
larger point is that the profit motive promotes the
expansion of imprisonment.35
The persistence of the prison as the main form of pun­
ishment, with its racist and sexist dimensions, has created
this historical continuity between the nineteenth- and early­
twentieth-century convict lease system and the privatized
prison business today. While the convict lease system was
legally abolished, its structures of exploitation have
reemerged in the patterns of privatization, and, more gener­
ally, in the wide-ranging corporatization of punishment that
has produced a prison industrial complex. If the prison con­
tinues to dominate the landscape of punishment throughout
this century and into the next, what might await coming
generations of impoverished African-Americans, Latinos,
Native Americans, and Asian-Americans? Given the paral­
lels between the prison and slavery, a productive exercise
might consist in speculating about what the present might
look like if slavery or its successor, the convict lease system,
had not been abolished.
To be sure, I am not suggesting that the abolition of slavA R E P R I S ONS O B S O L ET E ? 137

ery and the lease system has produced an era of equality and
justice. On the contrary, racism surreptitiously defines
social and economic structures in ways that are difficult to
identify and thus are much more damaging. In some states,
for example, more than one-third of black men have been
labeled felons. In Alabama and Florida, once a felon, always
a felon, which entails the loss of status as a rights-bearing
citizen. One of the grave consequences of the powerful reach
of the prison was the 2000 (sJelection of George W. Bush as
president. If only the black men and women denied the right
to vote because of an actual or presumed felony record had
been allowed to cast their ballots, Bush would not be in the
White House today. And perhaps we would not be dealing
with the awful costs of the War on Terrorism declared dur­
ing the first year of his administration. If not for his election,
the people of Iraq might not have suffered death, destruc­
tion, and environmental poisoning by u.s. military forces.
As appalling as the current political situation may be,
imagine what our lives might have become if we were still
grappling with the institution of slavery-or the convict
lease system or racial segregation. But we do not have to
speculate about living with the consequences of the prison.
There is more than enough evidence in the lives of men and
women who have been claimed by ever more repressive
institutions and who are denied access to their families,
their communities, to educational opportunities, to produc­
tive and creative work, to physical and mental recreation.
And there is even more compelling evidence about the dam­
age wrought by the expansion of the prison system in the
schools located in poor communities of color that replicate
the structures and regimes of the prison. When children
attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and
security than on knowledge and intellectual development,
38 I Angela Y. Davis

they are attending prep schools for prison. If this is the
predicament we face today, what might the future hold if the
prison system acquires an even greater presence in our soci­
ety? In the nineteenth century, antislavery activists insisted
that as long as slavery continued, the future of democracy
was bleak indeed. In the twenty-first century, antiprison
activists insist that a fundamental requirement for the revi­
talization of democracy is the long-overdue abolition of the
prison system.

A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L E T E ? 1 39

used to burn away the flesh from his limbs, and molten lead,


I m prison m ent an d

R e f or m

boiling oil, burning resin, and other substances were melted
together and poured onto the wounds. Finally, he was drawn
and quartered, his body burned, and the ashes tossed into
the wind.37 Under English common law, a conviction for
sodomy led to the punishment of being buried alive, and
convicted heretics also were burned alive. "The crime of
treason by a female was punished initially under the com­

"One should recall that the movement for reforming the
prisons, for controlling their functioning is not a recent
phenomenon. It does not even seem to have originated in
a recognition of failure. Prison 'reform' is virtually con­
temporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were,
its programme."

mon law by burning alive the defendant. However, in the


this method was halted and the punishment

became strangulation and burning of the corpse."38
European and American reformers set out to end macabre
penalties such as this, as well as other forms of corporal pun­
ishment such as the stocks and pillories, whippings, brand­

-Michel Foucault36

ings, and amputations. Prior to the appearance of punitive
incarceration, such punishment was designed to have its

It is ironic that the prison itself was a product of concerted

most profound effect not so much on the person punished as

efforts by reformers to create a better system of punishment.

on the crowd of spectators. Punishment was, in essence,

If the words "prison reform" so easily slip from our lips, it is

public spectacle. Reformers such as John Howard in England

because "prison" and "reform" have been inextricably

and Benjamin Rush in Pennsylvania argued that punish­

linked since the beginning of the use of imprisonment as the

ment-if carried out in isolation, behind the walls of the

main means of punishing those who violate social norms.

prison-would cease to be revenge and would actually

As I have already indicated, the origins of the prison are

reform those who had broken the law.

associated with the American Revolution and therefore with

It should also be pointed out that punishment has not been

the resistance to the colonial power of England. Today this

without its gendered dimensions. Women were often pun­

seems ironic, but incarceration within a penitentiary was

ished within the domestic domain, and instruments of torture

assumed to be humane-at least far more humane than the

were sometimes imported by authorities into the household.

capital and corporal punishment inherited from England and

In seventeenth-century Britain, women whose husbands iden­

other European countries.

tified them as quarrelsome and unaccepting of male domi­



his study,

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, with a

nance were punished by means of a gossip's bridle, or

execution in Paris. The man who

ilbranks, " a headpiece with a chain attached and an iron bit

was put to death was first forced to undergo a series of for­

that was introduced into the woman's mouth.39 Although the

midable tortures ordered by the court. Red-hot pincers were

branking of women was often linked to a public parade, this

ic description of a



A R E P R I S ONS O B S O L ET E ? 1 41

contraption was sometimes hooked to a wall of the house,
where the punished woman remained until her husband
decided to release her. I mention these forms of punishment
inflicted on women because, like the punishment inflicted on
slaves, they were rarely taken up by prison reformers.
Other modes of punishment that predated the rise of the
prison include banishment, forced labor in galleys, trans­
portation, and appropriation of the accused's property. The
punitive transportation of large numbers of people from
England, for example, facilitated the initial colonization of
Australia. Transported English convicts also settled the
North American colony of Georgia. During the early 1700s,
one in eight transported convicts were women, and the work
they were forced to perform often consisted of prostitution.40
Imprisonment was not employed as a principal mode of
punishment until the eighteenth century in Europe and the
nineteenth century in the United States. And European
prison systems were instituted in Asia and Africa as an
important component of colonial rule. In India, for example,
the English prison system was introduced during the second
half of the eighteenth century, when jails were established
in the regions of Calcutta and Madras. In Europe, the peni­
tentiary movement against capital and other corporal pun­
ishments reflected new intellectual tendencies associated
with the Enlightenment, actIVIst interventions by
Protestant reformers, and structural transformations associ­
ated with the rise of industrial capitalism. In Milan in 1764,
Cesare Beccaria published his Essay on Crimes and
Punishments,4 1 which was strongly influenced by notions of
equality advanced by the philosophes-especially Voltaire,
Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Beccaria argued that punish­
ment should never be a private matter, nor should it be arbi­
trarily violent; rather, it should be public, swift, and as
42 I Angela Y. Davis

lenient as possible. He revealed the contradiction of what
was then a distinctive feature of imprisonment-the fact
that it was generally imposed prior to the defendant's guilt
or innocence being decided.
However, incarceration itself eventually became the
penalty, bringing about a distinction between imprisonment
as punishment and pretrial detention or detention until the
infliction of punishment. The process through which
imprisonment developed into the primary mode of state­
inflicted punishment was very much related to the rise of
capitalism and to the appearance of a new set of ideological
conditions. These new conditions reflected the rise of the
bourgeoisie as the social class whose interests and aspira­
tions furthered new scientific, philosophical, cultural, and
popular ideas. It is thus important to grasp the fact that the
prison as we know it today did not make its appearance on
the historical stage as the superior form of punishment for
all times. It was simply-though we should not underesti­
mate the complexity of this process-what made most sense
at a particular moment in history. We should therefore ques­
tion whether a system that was intimately related to a par­
ticular set of historical circumstances that prevailed during
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can lay absolute
claim on the twenty-first century.
It may be important at this point in our examination to
acknowledge the radical shift in the social perception of the
individual that appeared in the ideas of that era. With the
rise of the bourgeoisie, the individual came to be regarded as
a bearer of formal rights and liberties. The notion of the indi­
vidual's inalienable rights and liberties was eventually
memorialized in the French and American Revolution.
"Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" from the French Revolution
and "We hold these truths to be self-evident: all men are creA R E P R I S ONS O B S O L ET E ? 1 43

ated equal . . .


from the American Revolution were new and

resistance to the contemporary tendency to commodify

radical ideas, even though they were not extended to

every aspect of planetary existence. The question we might

women, workers, Africans! and Indians. Before the accept­

consider is whether this new resistance to capitalist global­

ance of the sanctity of individual rights, imprisonment

ization should also incorporate resistance to the prison.

could not have been understood as punishment. If the indi­

Thus far I have largely used gender-neutral language to

vidual was not perceived as p ossessing inalienable rights and

describe the historical devel opment of the prison and its

liberties, then the alienation of those rights and liberties by

reformers. But convicts punished by imprisonment in emer­

removal from society to a space tyrannically governed by the

gent penitentiary systems were primarily male. This reflect­

state would not have made sense. Banishment beyond the

ed the d eeply gender-biased structure of legal, political, and

geographical limits of the town may have made sense, but

economic rights. Since women were largely denied public

not the alteration of the individual's legal status through

status as rights-bearing individuals, they could not be easily

imposition of a prison sentence.

punished by the deprivation of such rights through impris­

Moreover, the prison sentence, which is always comput­

onment.43 This was especially true of married women, who

ed in terms of time, is related to abstract quantification,

had no standing before the law. According to English com­

evoking the rise of science and wh;;tt is often referred to as

mon law, marriage resulted in a state of " civil death, " as

the Age of Reason. We should keep in mind that this was

symbolized by the wife's assumption of the husband's name.

precisely the historical period when the value of labor began

Consequently, she tended to be punished for revolting

to be calculated in terms of time and therefore compensated

against her domestic duties rather than for failure in her mea­

in another quantifiable way, by money. The c omputability

ger public responsibilities. The relegation of white women to

of state punishment in terms of

d omestic economies prevented them from playing a


years-resonates with the role of labor-time as the basis for

cant role in the emergent commodity realm. This was espe­

computing the value of capitalist commodities. Marxist the­

cially true since wage labor was typically gendered as male

orists of punishment have noted that precisely the historical

and racialized as white. It is not fortuitous that domestic cor­

period during which the commodity form arose is the era

poral punishment for women survived long after these modes

during which penitentiary sentences emerged as the primary

of punishment had become obsolete for (white) men. The

form of punishment.42

persistence of domestic violence painfully attests to these

Today, the growing social movement contesting the

historical modes of gendered punishment.

supremacy of global capital is a movement that directly chal­

Some scholars have argued that the word "penitentiary"

human, animal, and plant

may have been used first in connection with plans outlined

lenges the rule of the

populations, as well as its natural resources-by corporations

in England in 1758 to house "penitent prostitutes./I In 1777,

that are primarily interested in the increased production and

John Howard, the leading Protestant proponent of penal

circulation of ever more profitable commodities. This is a

reform in England, published

challenge to the supremacy of the c ommodity form, a rising

which he conceptualized imprisonment as an occasion for

44 I Angela Y. Davis



of the Prisons,44 in

A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L E T E ? I 45

religious self-reflection and self-reform. Between 1 78 7 and
1 791, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham published
his letters on a prison model he called the panopticon.45
Bentham claimed that criminals could only internalize pro­
ductive labor habits if they were under constant surveil­
lance. According to his panopticon model, prisoners were to
be housed in single cells on circular tiers, all facing a multi­
level guard tower. By means of blinds and a complicated play
of light and darkness, the prisoners-who would not see
each other at all-would be unable to see the warden. From
his vantage point, on the other hand, the warden would be
able to see all of the prisoners. However-and this was the
most significant aspect of Bentham's mammoth panopti­
con-because each individual prisoner would never be able
to determine where the warden's gaze was focused, each
prisoner would be compelled to act, that is, work, as if he
were being watched at all times.
If we combine Howard's emphasis on disciplined self­
reflection with 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 impli­
cations. 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 req­
uisite industrial labor for a developing capitalist system.
John Howard's ideas were incorporated in the
Penitentiary Act of 1799, which opened the way for the
modern prison. While Jeremy Bentham's ideas influenced
the development of the first national English penitentiary,
located in Millbank and opened in 18 1 6, the first full-fledged
effort to create a panopticon prison was in the United States.
46 I Angela Y. Davis

The Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh, based on a
revised architectural model of the panopticon, opened in
1826. But the penitentiary had already made its appearance
in the United States. Pennsylvania's Walnut Street Jail
housed the first state penitentiary in the United States,
when a portion of the jail was converted in 1790 from a
detention facility to an institution housing convicts whose
prison sentences simultaneously became punishment and
occasions for penitence and reform.
Walnut Street's austere regime-total isolation in single
cells where prisoners lived, ate, worked, read the Bible (if,
indeed, they were literate), and supposedly reflected and
repented-came to be known as the Pennsylvania system.
This regime would constitute one of that era's two major
models of imprisonment. Although the other model, devel­
oped in Auburn, New York, was viewed as a rival to the
Pennsylvania system, the philosophical basis of the two
models did not differ substantively. The Pennsylvania
model, which eventually crystallized in the Eastern State
Penitentiary in Cherry Hill-the plans for which were
approved in 182 1-emphasized total isolation, silence, and
solitude, whereas the Auburn model called for solitary cells
but labor in common. This mode of prison labor, which was
called congregate, was supposed to unfold in total silence.
Prisoners were allowed to be with each other as they
worked, but only under condition of silence. Because of its
more efficient labor practices, Auburn eventually became
the dominant model, both for the United States and Europe.
Why would eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reform­
ers become so invested in creating conditions of punishment
based on solitary confinement? Today, aside from death,
solitary confinement-next to torture, or as a form of tor­
ture-is considered the worst form of punishment imaginaA R E P R I S O N S O B S O LETE? 1 47

ble. Then, however, it was assumed to have an emaneipato­
ry effect. The body was placed in conditions of se�;rel�atLOn
and solitude in order to allow the soul to flourish. It is not
accidental that most of the reformers of that era were deeply
religious and therefore saw the architecture and


the penitentiary as emulating the architecture and regimes
of monastic life. Still, observers of the new penitentiary saw,
early on, the real potential for insanity in solitary confine­
ment. In an often-quoted passage of his American Notes,
Charles Dickens prefaced a description of his


visit to

Eastern Penitentiary with the observation that "the system
here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I
believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong."
In its intention I




suaded that those who devised this system of Prison
Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who
carry it into execution, do not know what it is that
they are doing. I believe that very few men are capa­
ble of estimating the immense amount of torture and
agony that this dreadful punishment, prolonged for
years, inflicts upon the sufferers . . . I am only the
more convinced that there is a depth of terrible
endurance in it which none but the sufferers them­
selves can fathom, and which no man has a right to
inflict upon his fellow-ereature. I hold this slow and
daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be
immeasurably worse than any torture of the body . . .
because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it
extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore
I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which
slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.46

48 I Angela Y. Davis

ment would result in moral renewal and thus mold convicts
into better citizens,47 Dickens was of the opinion that
"[t]hose who have undergone this punishment MUST pass
into society again morally unhealthy and diseased. "48 This
early critique of the penitentiary and its regime of solitary
confinement troubles the notion that imprisonment is the
most suitable form of punishment for a democratic society.
The current constmction and expansion of state and fed­
eral super-maximum security prisons, whose putative pur­
pose is to address disciplinary problems within the penal
system, draws upon the historical conception of the peni­

well convinced that it is kind,

humane, and meant for reformation; but I

Unlike other Europeans such as Alexis de Tocqueville
and Gustave de Beaumont, who believed that such punish­

tentiary, then considered the most progressive form of pun­
ishment. Today African-Americans and Latinos are vastly
overrepresented in these supermax prisons and control
units, the first of which emerged when federal correctional

to send prisoners housed throughout the

system whom they deemed to be
prison in Marion, Illinois. In

/I dangerous"


to the federal

the entire prison was

"locked down,'! which meant that prisoners were confined
to their cells twenty-three hours a day. This lockdown
became permanent, thus furnishing the general model for
the control unit and supermax prison.49 Today, there are

super-maximum security federal and

state prisons located in thirty-six states and many more
supermax units in virtually every state in the country.
A description of supermaxes in a


Human Rights

Watch report sounds chillingly like Dickens's description of
Eastern State Penitentiary. What is different, however, is
that all references to individual rehabilitation have disap­


Inmates in super-maximum security facilities are
usually held in single cell lock-down, commonly
referred to as solitary confinement . . . [C]ongregate
activities with other prisoners are usually prohibit­
ed; other prisoners cannot even be seen from an
inmate's cell; communication with other prisoners

is prohibited or difficult (consisting, for

shouting from cell to cell); visiting and telephone
privileges are limited.5o
The new generation of super-maximum security facilities
controlling prisoner conduct and movement, utilizing, for
example, video monitors and remote· controlled electronic
doors. 51 "These prisons represent the application of sophis­
to the task of

social control, and they isolate, regulate and surveil more
effectively than anything that has preceded them."52
I have highlighted the similarities between the early U.S.
penitentiary-with its aspirations toward individual rehabil·
itation-and the repressive supermaxes of our era as a
reminder of the mutability of history. What was once
regarded as progressive and even revolutionary represents
today the marriage of technological superiority and political
backwardness. No one-not even the most ardent defenders
of the supermax-would try to argue today that absolute
segregation, including sensory deprivation, is restorative and
healing. The prevailing justification for the supermax is that
the horrors it creates are the perfect complement for the hor·
rHying personalities deemed the worst of the worst by the
prison system. In other words, there is no pretense that
rights are respected, there is no concern for the individual,
there is no sense that men and women incarcerated in super-

50 I Angela Y. Davis

1999 report

issued by the National Institute

of Corrections,
Generally, the overall constitutionality of these
[supermax] programs remains unclear. As larger
numbers of inmates with a greater

of char·

acteristics, backgrounds, and behaviors are incar·
cerated in these facilities, the likelihood of legal
challenge is increased. 53

also rely on state-of-the-art technology for monitoring and

ticated, modern technology dedicated

maxes deserve anything approaching respect and eomfort.
According to a

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, absolute
solitude and strict regimentation of the prisoner's every
action were viewed as strategies for transforming habits and
ethics. That is to say, the idea that imprisonment should be
the main form of punishment reflected a belief in the poten­
tial of white mankind for progress, not only in science and
industry, but at the level of the individual member of socie­
ty as well. Prison reformers mirrored Enlightenment
assumptions of progress in every aspect of human-or to be
more precise, white Western-society. In his

Imagining the
Mind in



Fiction and the Architecture of
England, John Bender proposes

the very intriguing argument that the emergent literary genre
of the novel furthered a discourse of progress and individual
transformation that encouraged attitudes toward punish·
ment to

These attitudes, he suggests, heralded the

conception and construction of penitentiary prisons during
the latter part of the eighteenth century as a reform suited to
the capacities of those who were deemed human.
Reformers who called for the imposition of penitentiary
architecture and regimes on the then existing structure of the
prison aimed their critiques at the prisons that were primari·

A R E P R I S O N S O B SO L E T E ? ] 51

ly used for purposes of pretrial detention or as an alternative
punishment for those who were unable to pay fines exacted
by the courts. John Howard, the most well known of these
reformers, was what you might today call a prison activist.
Beginning in 1773, at the age of forty-seven, he initiated a
series of visits that took him "to every institution for the
poor in Europe . . . [a campaign] which cost him his fortune
and finally his life in a typhus war of the Russian army at
Cherson in 1 79 1. "55 At the conclusion of his first trip abroad,
he successfully ran for the office of sheriff in Bedfordshire. As
sheriff he investigated the prisons under his own jurisdiction
and later "set out to visit every prison in England and Wales
to document the evils he had first observed at Bedford."56
Bender argues that the novel helped facilitate these cam­
paigns to transform the old prisons-which were filthy and
in disarray, and which thrived on the bribery of the war­
dens-into well-ordered rehabilitative penitentiaries. He
shows that novels such as Moll Flanders and Robinson
Crusoe emphasized "the power of confinement to reshape
personality"57 and popularized some of the ideas that moved
reformers to action. As Bender points out, the eighteenth­
century reformers criticized the old prisons for their chaos,
their lack of organization and classification, for the easy cir­
culation of alcohol and prostitution they permitted, and for
the prevalence of contagion and disease.
The reformers, primarily Protestant, among whom
Quakers were especially dominant, couched their ideas in
large part in religious frameworks. Though John Howard
was not himself a Quaker-he was an independent
[h]e was drawn to Quaker asceticism and adopted
the dress " of a plain Friend. " His own brand of piety
52 I Angela Y. Davis

was strongly reminiscent of the Quaker traditions
of silent prayer, " suffering" introspection, and faith
in the illumining power of God's light. Quakers, for
their part, were bound to be drawn to the idea of
imprisonment as a purgatory, as a forced withdraw­
al from the distractions of the senses into silent and
solitary confrontation with the self. Howard con­
ceived of a convict's process of reformation in terms
similar to the spiritual awakening of a believer at a
Quaker meeting. 58
However, according to Michael Ignatieff, Howard's con­
tributions did not so much reside in the religiosity of his
reform efforts.
The originality of Howard's indictment lies in its
"scientific, " not in its moral character. Elected a
Fellow of the Royal Society in 1756 and author of
several scientific papers on climatic variations in
Bedfordshire, Howard was one of the first philan­
thropists to attempt a systematic statistical
description of a social problem. 59
Likewise, Bender's analysis of the relationship between
the novel and the penitentiary emphasizes the extent to
which the philosophical underpinnings of the prison
reformer's campaigns echoed the materialism and utilitari­
anism of the English Enlightenment. The campaign to
reform the prisons was a project to impose order, classifica­
tion, cleanliness, good work habits, and self-consciousness.
He argues that people detained within the old prisons were
not severely restricted-they sometimes even enjoyed the
freedom to move in and out of the prison. They were not
A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ETE? I 53

compelled to work and, depending on their own resources,
could eat and drink as they wished. Even sex was sometimes
available! as prostitutes were sometimes allowed temporary
entrance into the prisons. Howard and other reformers
called for the imposition of rigid rules that would "enforce
solitude and penitence, cleanliness and work. "60
ilThe new penitentiaries," according to Bender, "sup­
planting both the old prisons and houses of correction!
explicitly reached toward . . . three goals: maintenance of
order within a largely urban labor force, salvation of the
soul, and rationalization of personality."6 1 He argues that
this is precisely what was narratively accomplished by the
novel. It ordered and classified social life, it represented indi­
viduals as conscious of their surroundings and as self-aware
and self-fashioning. Bender thus sees a kinship between two
major developments of the eighteenth century-the rise of
the novel in the cultural sphere and the rise of the peniten­
tiary in the socio-Iegal sphere. If the novel as a cultural form
helped to produce the penitentiary, then prison reformers
must have been influenced by the ideas generated by and
through the eighteenth-century novel.
Literature has continued to play a role in campaigns
around the prison. During the twentieth century, prison writ­
ing, in particular! has periodically experienced waves of pop­
ularity. The public recognition of prison writing in the
United States has historically coincided with the influence of
social movements calling for prison reform and/or abolition.
Robert Burns's I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain
and the 1932 Hollywood film upon which it was
based, played a central role in the campaign to abolish the
chain gang. During the 1970s, which were marked by intense
organizing within, outside, and across prison walls, numer­
ous works authored by prisoners followed the 1970 publica-

54 I Angela Y. Davis

tion of George Jackson's Soledad Brother63 and the antholo­
gy I coedited with Bettina Aptheker, If They Come in the
Morning.64 While many prison writers during that era had

discovered the emancipatory potential of writing on their
own, relying either on the education they had received prior
to their imprisonment or on their tenacious efforts at self­
education, others pursued their writing as a direct result of
the expansion of prison educational programs during that era.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has challenged the contemporary
dismantling of prison education programs, asks in Live from

Death Row,
What societal interest is served by prisoners who
remain illiterate? What social benefit is there in
ignorance ? How are people corrected while impris­
oned if their education is outlawed? Who profits
(other than the prison establishment itself) from
stupid prisoners?65
A practicing journalist before his arrest in 1982 on charges
of killing Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner, Abu­
Jamal has regularly produced articles on capital punishment,
focusing especially on its racial and class disproportions. His
ideas have helped to link critiques of the death penalty with
the more general challenges to the expanding U.S. prison sys­
tem and are particularly helpful to activists who seek to asso­
ciate death penalty abolitionism with prison abolitionism.
His prison writings have been published in both popular and
scholarly journals (such as The Nation and Yale Law Tournai)
as well as in three collections, Live from Death Row, Death

Blossoms,66 and All Things Censored. 67
Abu-Jamal and many other prison writers have strongly
criticized the prohibition of Pell Grants for prisoners, which


was enacted in the 1 994 crime bill,68 as indicative of the
contemporary pattern of dismantling educational programs
behind bars. As creative writing courses for prisoners were
defunded, virtually every literary journal publishing prison­
ers' writing eventually eollapsed. Of the scores of magazines
and newspapers produced behind walls, only the Angolite at
Louisiana's Angola Prison and Prison Legal News at
Washington State Prison remain. What this means is that
precisely at a time of consolidating a significant writing cul­
ture behind bars, repressive strategies are being deployed to
dissuade prisoners from educating themselves.
If the publication of Malcolm X's autobiography marks
a pivotal moment in the development of prison literature
and a moment of vast promise for prisoners who try to
make education a major dimension of their time behind
bars,69 contemporary prison practices are systematically
dashing those hopes. In the 1 950s, Malcolm's prison edu­
cation was a dramatic example of prisoners' ability to turn
their incarceration into a transformative experience. With
no available means of organizing his quest for knowledge,
he proceeded to read a dictionary, copying each word in his
own hand. By the time he could immerse himself in read­
ing, he noted, "months passed without my even thinking
about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had
been so truly free in my life." 7o Then, aceording to
Malcolm, prisoners who demonstrated an unusual interest
in reading were assumed to have embarked upon a j ourney
of self-rehabilitation and were frequently allowed special
privileges-such as checking out more than the maximum
number of books. Even so, in order to pursue this self-edu­
cation, Malcolm had to work against the prison regime-he
often read on his cell floor, long after lights-out, by the
glow of the corridor light, talting care to return to bed each
56 I Angela Y. Davis

hour for the two minutes during which the guard marched
past his cell.
The contemporary disestablishment of writing and other
prison educational programs is indicative of the official dis­
regard today for rehabilitative strategies, particularly those
that encourage individual prisoners to acquire autonomy of
the mind. The documentary film The Last Graduation
describes the role prisoners played in establishing a four-year
college program at New York's Greenhaven Prison and,
twenty-two years later, the official decision to dismantle it.
According to Eddie Ellis, who spent twenty-five years in
prison and is currently a well-known leader of the antiprison
movement, "As a result of Attica, college programs came
into the prisons. II 71
In the aftermath of the 1971 prisoner rebellion at Attica
and the government-sponsored massacre, public opinion
began to favor prison reform. Forty-three Attica prisoners
and eleven guards and civilians were killed by the National
Guard, who had been ordered to retake the prison by
Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The leaders of the prison
rebellion had been very specific about their demands. In
their "practical demands" they expressed concerns about
diet, improvement in the quality of guards, more realistic
rehabilitation programs, and better education programs.
They also wanted religious freedom, freedom to engage in
political activity, and an end to censorship-all of which
they saw as indispensable to their educational needs. As
Eddie Ellis observes in The Last Graduation,
Prisoners very early recognized the fact that they
needed to be better educated, that the more educa­
tion they had, the better they would be able to deal
with themselves and their problems, the problems
A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ETE? I 57

of the prisons and the problems of the communities

full of gold." The prisoner who for many years had served as

from which most of them came.

a clerk for the college sadly reflected, as books were being
moved, that there was nothing left to do in prison-except

Lateef Islam, another former prisoner featured in this

perhaps bodybuilding. " But/' he asked, "what's the use of

documentary, said, "We held classes before the

building your body if you can't build your mind?" Ironically,

came. We taught each other, and sometimes under penalty

not long after educational programs were disestablished,

of a beat-up."

weights and bodybuilding equipment were also removed

After the Attica Rebellion, more than five hundred pris­

from most U.S. prisons.

oners were transferred to Greenhaven, including some of the
leaders who continued to press for educational programs. As
a direct result of their demands, Marist College, a New York
state college near Greenhaven, began to offer college-level
courses in 1973 and eventually established the infrastruc­
ture for an on-site four-year college program. The program
thrived for twenty-two years. Some of the many prisoners
who earned their degrees at Greenhaven pursued postgradu­
ate studies after their release. As the documentary power­
fully demonstrates, the program produced dedicated men
who left prison and offered their newly acquired knowledge
and skills to their communities on the outside.
In 1994, consistent with the general pattern of creating
more prisons

and more repression within all prisons,

Congress took up the question of withdrawing college fund­
ing for inmates. The congressional debate concluded with a
decision to add an amendment to the 1994 crime bill that
eliminated all Pell Grants for prisoners, thus effectively
defunding all higher educational programs. After twenty­
two years, Marist College was compelled to terminate its
program at Greenhaven Prison. Thus, the documentary
revolves around the very last graduation ceremony on July
IS, 1995, and the poignant process of removing the books
that, in many ways, symbolized the possibilities of freedom.
Or, as one of the Marist professors said, "They see books as

58 I Angela Y. Davis

A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ETE? I 59


H o w G end er Str u c t u res the
Pr i s o n Syste m

"I have been told that I will never leave prison if I contin­
ue to fight the system. My answer is that one must be
alive in order to leave prison, and our current standard of
medical care is tantamount to a death sentence.
Therefore, I have no choice but to continue . . . Conditions
within the institution continually reinvoke memories of
violence and oppression, often with devastating results.
Unlike other incarcerated women who have come forward
to reveal their impressions of prison, I do not feel 'safer'
here because 'the abuse has stopped.' It has not stopped. It
has shifted shape and paced itself differently, but it is as
insidious and pervasive in prison as ever it was in the
world I know outside these walls. What has ceased is my
ignorance of the facts concerning abuse-and my willing­
ness to tolerate it in silence."
-Marcia Bunny72

Over the last five years, the prison system has received far
more attention by the media than at any time since the peri­
od following the 1971 Attica Rebellion. However, with a few
important exceptions, women have been left out of the pub­
lic discussions about the expansion of the u. s. prison sys­
tem. I am not suggesting that simply bringing women into
the existing conversations on jails and prisons will deepen

our analysis of state punishment and further the project of
prison abolition. Addressing issues that are specific to
women's prisons is of vital importance, but it is equally
important to shift the way we think about the prison system
as a whole. Certainly women's prison practices are gendered,
but so, too, are men's prison practices. To assume that men's
institutions constitute the norm and women's institutions
are marginal is, in a sense, to participate in the very nor­
malization of prisons that an abolitionist approach seeks to
contest. Thus, the title of this chapter is not "Women and
the Prison System, " but rather "How Gender Structures the
Prison System. " Moreover, scholars and activists who are
involved in feminist projects should not consider the struc­
ture of state punishment as marginal to their work. Forward­
looking research and organizing strategies should recognize
that the deeply gendered character of punishment both
reflects and further entrenches the gendered structure of the
larger society.
Women prisoners have produced a small but impressive
body of literature that has illuminated significant aspects of
the organization of punishment that would have otherwise
remained unacknowledged. Assata Shakur's memoirs,73 for
example, reveal the dangerous intersections of racism, male
domination, and state strategies of political repression. In
1977 she was convicted on charges of murder and assault in
connection with a 1973 incident that left one New Jersey
state trooper dead and another wounded. She and her com­
panion, Zayd Shakur, who was killed during the shootout,
were the targets of what we now name racial profiling and
were stopped by state troopers under the pretext of a broken
taillight. At the time Assata Shakur, known then as Joanne
Chesimard, was underground and had been anointed by the
police and the media as the "Soul of the Black Liberation
A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ET E ? I 61

Army." By her 1977 conviction, she either had been acquitted
or had charges dismissed in six other cases-upon the basis of
which she had been declared a fugitive in the first place. Her
attorney, Lennox Hinds, has pointed out that since it was
proven that Assata Shakur did not handle the gun with which
the state troopers were shot, her mere presence in the auto­
mobile, against the backdrop of the media demonization to
which she was subjected, constituted the basis of her convic­
tion. In the foreword to Shakur's autobiography Hinds writes:
In the history of New Jersey, no woman pretrial
detainee or prisoner has ever been treated as she
was, continuously confined in a men's prison,
under twenty-four-hour surveillance of her most
intimate functions, without intellectual suste­
nance, adequate medical attention, and exercise,
and without the company of other women for all
the years she was in their custodyJ4
There is no doubt that Assata Shakur's status as a black
political prisoner accused of killing a state trooper caused
her to be singled out by the authorities for unusually cruel
treatment. However, her own account emphasizes the
extent to which her individual experiences reflected those of
other imprisoned women, especially black and Puerto Rican
women. Her description of the strip search, which focuses
on the internal examination of body cavities, is especially
Joan Bird and Afeni Shakur [members of the Black
Panther Party] had told me about it after they had
been bailed out in the Panther 21 trial. When they
had told me, I was horrified.
62 I Angela Y. Davis

"You mean they really put their hands inside
you, to search you ? " I had asked.
"Uh-huh, " they answered. Every woman who
has ever been on the rock, or in the old house of
detention, can tell you about it. The women call it
or, more vulgarly, "getting Hn­
"getting the
"What happens if you refuse?" I had asked Afeni.
"They lock you in the hole and they don't let you
out until you consent to be searched internally."
I thought about refusing, but I sure as hell didn't
want to be in the hole. I had had enough of solitary.
The "internal search" was as humiliating and dis­
gusting as it sounded. You sit on the edge of this
table and the nurse holds your legs open and sticks
a finger in your vagina and moves it around. She has
a plastic glove on. Some of them try to put one fin­
and another one up your rectum
ger in your
at the same time.75
I have quoted this passage so extensively because it
exposes an everyday routine in women's prisons that verges
on sexual assault as much as it is taken for granted. Having
been imprisoned in the Women's House of Detention to
which Joan Bird and Afeni Shakur refer, I can personally
affirm the veracity of their claims. Over thirty years after
Bird and Afeni Shakur were released and after I myself spent
several months in the Women's House of Detention, this
issue of the strip search is still very much on the front burn­
er of women's prison activism. In 2001 Sisters Inside, an
Australian support organization for women prisoners,
launched a national campaign against the strip search, the
slogan of which was "Stop State Sexual Assault- " Assata
A R E P R I S O N S O B S O L ET E ? 1 63

Shakur's autobiography provides an abundance of insights

activists who are primarily concerned with the plight of

about the gendering of state punishment and reveals the

male prisoners-of the centrality of gender to an under­

extent to which women's prisons have held on to oppressive

standing of state punishment. Although men constitute the

patriarchal practices that are considered obsolete in the "free

vast majority of pris