Review by Danielle Martak
Through a series of interviews with Eduardo Mendieta in Abolition Democracy, Angela Y. Davis traces the U.S. prison system’s involvement in perpetuating the oppression of African-Americans, including the development of the powerfully terrible prison industrial complex, and suggests what might be done to truly abolish the structures of slavery that continue to exist today.
As Mendieta outlines at the beginning of the text, although slavery was formally abolished, the nation’s carceral response to crime has helped to ensure that slavery’s project of subjugating and exploiting black people for profit is not dead. About ten years after the Reconstruction, a period following the Civil War around 1865, had begun, “[w]hite legislators mandated a series of laws that forced black freed men to become indentured servants by criminalizing them”[i]. With legislation allowing black prisoners to be “leased or rented for absurd fees to the private entrepreneurs of the new South” [ii], imprisonment became the means through which to rekindle slavery. And so legislators looking to bring back the control and riches that they had enjoyed before the abolition began to create laws to criminalize an increasing number of African-Americans. As more and more black people were forced behind bars, the economic and social inequalities that had not disappeared with the outlawing of slavery deepened. Financially abandoned by a state that refused to firmly establish post-abolition institutions to remedy social and economic racial inequities and increasingly barred through imprisonment from bringing wealth to their communities, many black people were prevented from gaining “access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives” [iii]. Consequently, while many whites thrived as they exploited the racialized armies of imprisoned labourers, a great number of black communities were stricken by poverty and, relatedly, high rates of incarceration.
This racialized disparity persists today, with prisons facilitating the oppression of black and Latino people who make up 70 percent of the U.S. prison population yet comprise only “24 percent of the general population”[iv]. Despite its horrifying complicity in deepening inequalities, the spectre of the prison has only grown larger in the U.S. over the last century, to the point that it now plays a frighteningly large role in supporting the country’s economy. In the past forty years alone, the rise of tough-on-crime policies and increased police surveillance has caused the number of individuals behind bars in the United States to increase more than eight-fold, with over 2.3 million people currently imprisoned[v]. And staying true to its roots, the prison system continues to line pockets through inmate labour, perhaps even more so now that the number of available workers (i.e. inmates) has exploded. By hiring prisoners, a corporation can collect huge profits by expensing inmate wages at as little as 23 cents an hour [vi] per worker, while avoiding issues related to union strikes, employee attendance, or paying health benefits. Lured by these savings, lots of companies – including Victoria’s Secret, Microsoft, and Revlon [vii] – are taking advantage of the astronomically high U.S. inmate population by hiring prisoners to cut their costs. Therefore, the massive profits that shareholders love (especially in this recessionary time) are for some investors partially dependent upon keeping their fellow citizens in cages, many of whom are placed there for committing victimless offences.
Although prisons diminish some demand for (non-inmate) labour in this way, their presence simultaneously increases it, and thus further stimulates the economy. When a new prison comes to town, it creates more jobs than just ‘corrections officer’ because construction, architecture, materials, food, and countless other industries thrive from the arrival of a correctional facility. And so in this age when foreign manufacturing and big-box stores have wiped out a lot of local industry and decent employment opportunities in the United States, some communities might grow excited at the announcement that a prison will be coming, without realizing that it is a system whereby benefits accrue from the oppression of others. This recognition is perhaps inhibited by the way U.S. political culture and mass media have long engaged in the highly-racialized, dehumanizing portrayal of many criminals as evil-doers incapable of reform who therefore must stay behind bars to bolster the safety of the nation.
Corporations employing prisoners and individuals seeing prisons constructed in their communities are unfortunately not the only ones benefitting from increasing rates of imprisonment. Private prison companies in the U.S. reap extensive profits from escalating numbers of inmates, causing many investors seeking low-risk shares with high returns (regardless of the moral cost) to eagerly provide capital to these companies, which in turn lobby for every harsher law-and-order legislation . The largest private prison company in the U.S., the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), for example, has boasted a relatively well-performing share price over the last ten years, leading to it being labeled a “recession-resistant” investment. Ominously, last year the CCA earned a pre-tax, pre-interest profit of $332.1 million, a figure up almost $10 million from 201o [viii]. The CCA’s 2011 financial report discloses that this difference “resulted from a 3.4% increase in our average daily inmate population to 81,016 for 2011 from 78,319 during 2010” [ix]. In this age of ruthless capitalism, private prisons are quite literally transforming people into profit, thus leaving owners and investors longing for ever-rising rates of incarceration to swell revenues.
Of course, this reliance of the American economy upon the hyper-control of an extremely racialized group of people has chilling slavery-like implications. A long-time prison activist and untiring warrior for social justice, Davis takes up this problem in Abolition Democracy as she delineates the myriad ways in which the prison system is “carry[ing] out this terrible legacy” [x] of slavery that is “is not only born by black prisoners, but by poor Latino, Native American, Asian, and white prisoners” [xi] as well. Brilliantly, she engages with the DuBoisian notion of “abolition democracy” – a democracy that is free of injustice – to reveal that truly eradicating this continued oppression requires destroying the institutions that support it, particularly that of the prison. In outlining this project of abolition, Davis is careful to highlight two very important components: first, that prison abolition must not be limited to the disappearance of facilities, but rather must encompass the transformation of the countless “economic, social, and political conditions” [xii] that now nurture the existence of prisons. This includes challenging media affirmations of punitive responses to crime to the current capitalist system that, through its commitment to abandoning those who cannot support themselves, catalyzes the arrests of many for poverty-related crimes, encourages companies to use prison labour, and celebrates the profit-seeking initiatives of the corrections industry. Second, Davis expresses that this abolitionist work cannot be solely directed at dismantling these oppressive institutions; it must also be focused on “building up…creating new institutions” [xiii] that not only work to prevent crime, but are also integral to developing a society that discourages, rather than fosters, inequalities. As it seems there is no end in sight for American tough-on-crime initiatives, Davis’s Abolition Democracy, with its power to illuminate readers on the racism integral to the U.S. prison system and on real ways to resist an appalling prison industrial complex, stands as an invaluable call for a more humane and critically engaged world.
[i] Davis, Angela Y. Abolition Democracy. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. 9. Print.
[ii] Ibid, p. 9.
[iii] Ibid, p. 96.
[iv] Searls Giroux, Susan. “Lessons of Law and Order: What Canadians Can Learn from Failed US Crime Policy.” Truthout. Truthout, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Jul. 2012
[v] Liptak, Adam. “Inmate Count in U.S. Dwarfs Other Nations’.” New York Times. New York Times, 23 Apr. 2009. Web. 15 Jul. 2012.
[vi] United States Department of Justice. “Work Programs.” Federal Bureau of Prisons. United States Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 8 Jul. 2012.
[vii] Bowie, Nile. “Profit Driven Prison Industrial Complex: The Economics of Incarceration in the USA.” Global Research. Global Reasearch, 6 Feb., 2012. Web. 8 Jul. 2012.
[viii] Corrections Corporation of America. “CCA Announces 2011 Fourth Quarter and Full-Year Financial Results.” Corrections Corporation of America. Corrections Corporation of America, n.d. Web. 2 Jul. 2012.
[x] Davis, Angela Y. Abolition Democracy. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. 74. Print.
[xi] Ibid, p. 74.
[xii] Ibid, p. 73.
[xiii] Ibid, p. 73.