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Book review: Are Prisons Obsolete?

Recommended: Yes

Why read it? It will challenge your thinking and give you perspective on an institution that is actually quite new in human history—despite having been around your whole life, and therefore seeming like an inevitable part of society.


The prison is considered so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it.

True, at least for me.

… there may be twice as many people suffering from mental illness who are in jails and prisons than there are in all psychiatric hospitals in the United States combined.

In the late 1960s, there were ~200,000 people in prison. That number increased by 10x within 30 years. (Now it’s at around 5.5 million.)

Given how big the number is, how do we not have frequent and open debates about the effectiveness of incarceration?

The prison industry: construction of prisons, provision of goods and services to prisons, and prison labor.

The first state prison in California (San Quentin) opened in 1852. That’s … not that long ago?

The 1980s were when the boom in prison construction occurred. From 1980 to 1989 the number of prisons in California doubled. Two-thirds of currenltly existing prisons were built in that decade—to no great public outrcy.

Prisons are sold as a boon to the local economy—they’re recession-proof, they don’t pollute, they provide jobs. Grim.

Prisons relieve us of “the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society.”

It’s hard to imagine a society without incarceration. Okay. It was also hard—at the time—to imagine life without slavery, lynching, segregation. If you can’t imagine a world without prisons, try the easier exercise of imagining the incredulity with which slave abolitionist arguments were probably met by those whose lives and worlds were organized around slave labor.

“Penitentiary as punishment + rehabilitation” came about around the time of the American Revolution. Up to then, the norm had been capital and corporal punishment. (People were still imprisoned, but only as a prelude to punishment.)

So … it’s possible that locking people up is better than flogging them. Also possible that locking them up is still bad.

Adam Jay Hirsch on parallels between prison and slave plantation:

Both institutions subordinated their subjects to the will of others. Like Southern slaves, prison inmates followed a daily routine specified by their superiors. Both institutions reduced their subjects to dependence on others for the supply of basic human services such as food and shelter.

Never occurred to me how removing the ability to feed oneself is a punishment, even if you’re still fed.

Black Codes: laws passed after abolition that criminalized certain behaviors—vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contract, insulting gestures—only if the perpetrator was Black. She quotes from the Mississippi Black Codes and it’s just wild—anyone who “was drunk, was wanton in conduct or speech, had neglected job or family, handled money carelessly” could be prosecuted.

13th Amendment (Section 1):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Emphasis mine.


You own a slave, you have some investment in their health and survival. But under the convict lease system (post-abolition), the convicts were leased as a group and “could be worked literally to death without affecting the profitability of a convict crew.”

Probably a naive observation but wow, will people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid work. But I guess it’s about more than avoiding work.

Peachtree Street and most other older thoroughfares in Atlanta were built by convicts. “But black convict labor remains a hidden dimension of our history.” No shit, I’ve biked up and down that street a thousand times and never knew this.

Another major beneficiary of the convict lease system was the coal mine industry in Alabama. (I went on a mushroom hunt on a trail that runs along an old railroad outside Montgomery and found a chunk of old timey coal. There’s a good chance it was mined by convicts.)

More uses of prison/convict labor:

A list of products made by just one program can be found here: https://www.unicor.gov/SopAlphaList.aspx

Companies like CoreCivic who sell prison labor are paid per prisoner. It is in their shareholders’ best interest for incarceration rates to increase.

She makes, but doesn’t expand on, some comments about schools placing more value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, and how this effectively makes them “prep schools for prison.”

Prisons as we know them were reformist when first created. English common law was way messed up. Punishments like burning alive, being buried alive. The purpose of this kind of punishment is to create a spectacle that discourages attendees from breaking the law.

Wow in the 1600s a wife deemed “quarrelsome” by her husband could be fitted with a headpiece with a bit and paraded around town. Here is an article with more info + an absolutely horrifying picture.

Other punishments: banishment, appropriation of property, forced labor (including prostitution).

American Revolution, rise of capitalism, rise of bourgeoisie, Enlightenment era emphasis on the individual, notion of rights and liberties all lead to the notion that taking away rights and liberties is a punishment.

Since women were largely denied public status as rights-bearing individuals, they could not be easily punished by the deprivation of such rights through imprisonment.

Also: Industrialization, requirement for a disciplined labor force, and Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon all arise in the same era.

IDK though how was labor organized to build the pyramids? I imagine it was also pretty regimented, disciplined, surveilled.

OMG solitary confinment was originally imagined to “allow the soul to flourish.” Imagined (of course) by guys who had never been in solitary confinement.

She claims there’s been a marked decline in the number of publications produced in prisons, by prisoners. I wonder what that looks like now? I’m not aware of any at all.

She also claims weights and bodybuilding equipment were removed from most US prisons in the 90s?

Angela Davis herself was incarcerated for several months.

Women have been incarcerated in psychiatric institutions in greater proportion than in prisons.

Separate women’s prisons only came into being in the early 1800s.

If male criminals were considered to be public individuals who had simply violated the social contract, female criminals were seen as having transgressed fundamental moral principals of womanhood.

Aka “fallen women.”

They were also typically given longer sentences, in part to keep “genetically inferior” women locked up during their child bearing years.

Alabama was the first state to reinstate chain gangs in 1995 ??

Prison labor is ideal from a business perspective—no health insurance, unemployment insurance, worker’s comp.

Prison industrial complex and military industrial complex are symbiotic. When war budgets tighten, weapons manufacterers pivot to making law enforcement tech.

The pharmaceutical industry as we know it was born in the post-WWII era, and relied heavily on prisoners as research subjects.

From 1990 to 1998, homicide rates dropped by half nationwide, but homicide stories on the three major networks rose almost fourfold.

Federal, state, and county governments pay private prisons a fee per inmate, which incentivizes the prison companies to keep inmates as long as possible.

There’s prison as a labor source, then there’s prison as a market. Companies like Dial Soap, AT&T, Nestle, Hewlett-Packard, Ace Hardware, and Famous Amos (!!!) all sell to prisons.

In proposing alternatives, it’s easier to focus on the entire prison industrial complex than just focusing on prisons. There’s no one single alternative system of punishment we can just swap in.

What, then, would it mean to imagine a system in which punishment is not allowed to become the source of corporate profit?

… we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment—demilitarization of schools, revitaliziation of education at all levels, a health system that provides freep hysical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.

Schools can be seen as an alternative to jails and prisons.

There are currently more people with mental and emotional disorders in jails and prisons than in mental institutions.

She opts to skip the question “what will happen to the murderers and rapists”—wish she hadn’t.

    © 2024 Brian David Hall