Angela Davis And Prison Abolition: How Reform Only Broadens The Demographic Of Those Affected By Imprisonment.

By: Talib Williams

​I’ve always been aware of there existing an idea that prisons, and the idea of imprisonment, should be abolished. However, I never truly grasped the “why.” 

Don’t some people “belong” in prison? 

It wasn’t until reading Angela Davis’ “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle” that I began to gain a deeper appreciation of what is behind the idea of prison abolition. She was being interviewed by Frank Barat, who pointed out the fact that most people equate crime with prison; the idea that if someone commits a crime, they deserve imprisonment as a form of punishment. 

The following is an excerpt from that interview, which opened my eyes. 
(Frank Barat): “Talking about the abolition movement, even with my kids, I’ve noticed when we’re playing, my little boy says, ‘Okay, well, if you’re bad, you’ll go to jail.’ And he’s three and a half years old. So he is thinking “bad” equals “jail.” This also applies to most people. So the idea of prison abolition must be a very hard one to advocate for. Where do you start? And how do you advocate for prison abolition versus prison reform?”

(Angela Davis): “The history of the very institution of the prison is a history of reform. Foucault points this out. Reform doesn’t come after the advent of the prison; it accompanies the birth of the prisons. In the process of creating better prisons, more people are brought under the surveillance of the correctional and law enforcement networks. The question you raise reveals the extent to which the site of the jail or prison is not only material and objective but it’s ideological and psychic as well. We internalize this notion of a place to put bad people. That’s precisely one of the reasons why we have to imagine the abolitionist movement as addressing those ideological and psychic issues as well. Not just the process of removing the material institutions or facilities.”

So what we see is that, as a society, we have been normalized to the idea that crime equals punishment. We shy away from the “why.” Why does someone commit crime? “The prison forecloses discussion about that,” Angela Davis continues. “What did the person do? Why did the person do that? If we’re thinking about someone who has committed acts of violence, why is that kind of violence possible? Why do men engage in such violent behavior against women? The very existence of the prison forecloses the kinds of discussions that we need in order to imagine the possibility of eradicating these behaviors.”

So again, we see that prison abolition isn’t about doing away with the material institution more than it is about doing away with the underlying causes behind why people commit crime to begin with. Poverty, parenting, childhood abuse, neglect, etc. Prison abolition seeks to address the underlying causes of crime, as well as what causes us to develop the underlying belief that crime equals punishment. If our immediate reaction to hearing about crime was to understand the “why,” instead of instantly resorting to lynch mob behavior, maybe our nation wouldn’t be the number one incarcerator in the world.


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