Abolition, not reform

A Reading Note

Frank Barat asks Angela Davis, “Talking about the abolition movement, even with my kids, I’ve noticed that 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 that bad = 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? How do you advocate for prison abolition versus prison reform?”

Davis responds:

The history of the very institution of prison is a history of reform. Foucault points this out. Reform doesn’t come after the advent of prison; it accompanies the birth of the prison. So prison reform has always only created better 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.

Why is that person bad? The prison forecloses discussion about that. What is the nature of that badness? 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 prison forecloses the kinds of discussions that we need in order to imagine the possibility of eradicating these behaviors.

Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, page 22

This bit about how prison “forecloses discussion” about the nature of violence or other “bad” behaviors is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since reading this; what other policies or systems foreclose the kinds of discussions we need to be having to build a truly free, equitable society?

Davis continues:

I don’t think that the criminal justice system can operate without racism. Which is to say that if we want to imagine the possibility of a society without racism, it has to be a society without prisons.

Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, page 48

Not only do we have to imagine it, we have to work to build it. Echoing Michelle Alexander, Davis points out:

There are more Black people incarcerated and directly under the control of correctional agencies in the second decade of the twenty-first century than there were enslaved in 1850. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, page 122

Sit with that, then imagine the alternatives.

Related books

Davis has spent more than five decades fighting for Black liberation, women’s liberation, and prison abolition, and in this brief book she renews those calls in lucid and moral terms.