In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (January) Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis (February)
Whenever I participate in a secret santa I always ask for my secret santa's favorite book. For the TX Votes secret santa in 2018 I received this book from Jacob Springer. It sat on my bookshelf for an entire year before I read it, mainly because I doubted I would enjoy the true crime genre.
This book was the story of the Clutter-family murderers. Two men killed a family of four in cold blood. They were executed for their crimes. The writing was flowery, and it described the murder, the murderers' flight, the detectives' investigation, and the ultimate trial.
The book was easy enough to read, but I did not find it particularly interesting. It was odd how the author went out of his way to paint one of the murderers in a nuanced positive light while painting the other as a straightforward villain. I don't feel like I learned anything notable by reading this book, and I didn't particularly enjoy the process.
I've been meaning to read this book since I read The New Jim Crow exactly two years ago. It came up again when I attended an incredibly powerful conference at UT Austin's School of Law on Prison Abolition, Human Rights, and Penal Reform. The book is a classic in prison abolitionism literature, and the author accessibly outlines the flaws in our societal assumptions about incarceration.
This first chapter introduces the difference between prison reform and prison abolition. It argues that immediate reform strategies can overshadow more fundamental conversations about the existence of prisons in the first place.
'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 the free world.'
The second chapter draws a parallel between prison abolition and the abolition of slavery, lynching, and segregation. The central claim is that prison abolition may seem radical, but it is nonetheless necessary.
'Slavery, lynching, and segregation are certainly compelling examples of social institutions that, like the prison, were once considered to be as everlasting as the sun. Yet, in the case of all three examples, we can point to movements that assumed the radical stance of announcing the obsolescence of these institutions. It may help us gain perspective on the prison if we try to imagine how strange and discomforting the debates about the obsolescence of slavery must have been to those who took the "peculiar institution" for granted-and especially to those who reaped direct benefits from this dreadful system of racist exploitation.'
The third chapter explains how we got here. Incarceration was introduced as a reform over former coroporal punishment alternatives. However, modern prisons have clearly failed their ostensible goal of reforming inmates. Instead, prisons have regressed to cruelly incapacitating inmates until they inevitably return to society, worse off than when they entered.
'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 horrifying 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 supermaxes deserve anything approaching respect and comfort.'
The fourth chapter explores the relationship between gender and incarceration. It examines the practices of women's prisons, but also points out how limiting it is to consider men's prison practices as the standard.
'prison and police officers are vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside of work hours, would be crimes of sexual assault. If a person does not consent to being stripped naked by these officers, force can lawfully be used to do it... These legal strip searches are, in the author’s view, sexual assaults within the definition of indecent assault'
'late-twentieth-century "reforms" have relied on a "separate but equal" model. This "separate but equal" approach often has been applied uncritically, ironically resulting in demands for more repressive conditions in order to render women’s facilities "equal" to men’s.'
The fifth chapter outlines the integral relationship between prisons and corporate profit. For example, the chapter highlights how the spectre of slavery is reminiscient in prison labor disproportionately carried out by black men. Another important point here was that the prison industrial complex is an intricate web of corporations that profit from incarceration. Unfortunately, these corporations are not limited exclusively to the for-profit prisons that actually house inmates.
'For private business prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. [...] Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, and make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, all at a fraction of the cost of ’free labor.’'
'the variety of corporations making money from prisons is truly dizzying, ranging from Dial Soap to Famous Amos cookies, from AT&T to health-care providers [...] Private prisons are direct sources of profit for the companies that run them, but public prisons have become so thoroughly saturated with the profit-producing products and services of private corporations that the distinction is not as meaningful as one might suspect.'
Finally, the sixth chapter outlines abolitionist alternatives to incarceration. By this point, I was convinced their were problems, and looking for a magic bullet. Unfortunately, no such magic bullet exists. There is no one policy or law that can solve our incarceration problem. However, we can evaluate policy options with an abolitionist perspective to determine whether or not they are moving us in the right direction.
'An abolitionist approach that seeks to answer questions such as these would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society. In other words, we would not be looking for prison like substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing de-carceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment-demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance'
As with The New Jim Crow, I am having trouble summarizing the main takeaways because I found the entire book so insightful. I think it was worth a read, even if it left me unsatisfied on specific abolitionist alternatives to incarceration.