Reform or abolition ? Reading Angela Davis’ Freedom is a constant struggle*

 (Contribution in the cycle InfomAnia (7/11 – 19/12) "Prison Break, how to escape from the Belgian prison system", Anarchist City Center, Gent www.anarchie.be)

Luk Vervaet

To start with, I think it’s important to underline, against the widespread idea that prisons and incarceration always existed, that it is only in the last 200 years, that imprisonment has become the most important form of punishment in industrialized countries.

Two factors which go back to the XVIII century, led to the replacement of the corporal punishment practiced until then, by prison.    

First. The Age of Enlightenment and the humanist ideals it generated led to opposition of the arbitrary rule of the monarchs of the Ancien Régime and recognition of the rights and freedoms of the individual as positive values. Within this philosophy, the absence of freedom, by putting someone in prison and isolating the prisoner from the community, became the ultimate form of punishment, but also holding out a path to redemption. "The (French) Penal Code of 25 September 1791" presented for the first time “prison” as a real punishment, leaving aside the torture advocated by the Ancien Régime. 

Second. The Industrial Revolution in reshaping the world, also led to a revision of the concept of punishment. Prison became a part of the new industrial production process. From now on, prisons served to discipline the recalcitrant parts of the working class by enlarging drastically the number of criminal and political offenses and by incarcerating the lawbreakers the bourgeoisie needed to mould into a compliant workforce. Punishment – and pain - inflected in the past by flagellation, dismemberment and other forms of torture, or by personal revenge in the name of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, were left behind. The measure of pain and suffering imposed upon a wrongdoer was now calculated in “time” - the sacred value of the new era - represented by the number of months or years one had to stay (and work) in prison. Time in prison marked how serious an offence or a crime was considered. But it also indicated the state's right to inflict legal revenge, as well as the exact dosage of that legal revenge. 

Putting “bad people” in prison to protect society became anchored in our way of living and culture and became the most natural and rational thing on earth. The whole process of justice was taken out of the hands of the communities and handed over to the state. In our name, – in the words of Nils Christie or Phil Scraton – the state legally and intentionally inflicts a dose of violence and pain onto lawbreakers by incarcerating them. And in so doing, we become convinced that we have reached a superior level of human development, particularly compared to the horrible practices of the past as well as to the horrible practices in countries that we consider today to be  underdeveloped.

As long as prison exists, there has been a movement to abolish it.

The prison abolitionist movement aims to abolish both the prison as an institution and imprisonment as the most important form of punishment. Abolitionism stands for another definition of what we define as crime and for a restorative approach to solve the harm caused by it. The abolitionist movement is not a uniform movement, but consists of various currents, from abolition of the prison to abolition of the global penal system.   

The abolitionism of Angela Davis is in line with the centuries-old historical tradition of fighting against slavery and prison and with the abolitionist movement that appeared in the last quarter of the twentieth century. 
In a sense, what we are arguing is that the prison abolitionist struggle follows the anti-slavery abolitionist struggle of the nineteenth century”. (page 25) In that period, the Quakers were at the centre of calls for prison as a humane alternative to the then existing forms of punishment. At the same time, says Davis, “The Quakers were very much a part of the emergence of the idea that we should consider abolishing imprisonment” (page 22)

More recently, in the US (and in Europe), abolitionism broke through as a real possibility: "In the United States, the abolitionist movement emerged around the late 1960s and early ‘70s. I would say that in the 1970s there was a moment when abolition was taken seriously. This was around the time of the Attica Rebellion, when people seriously– I’m talking about prominent lawyers and judges, journalists - began to think about something other than imprisonment. " (22)

Angela Davis made her own contribution to the abolitionist movement, based on her own experiences and practice. Such as her participation in the campaign for the release of the political prisoners in the 1960s, followed by her own incarceration and the worldwide campaign Free Angela. Her struggle for the political prisoners was ultimately enlarged to a campaign to liberate all prisoners. Her revolutionary practice in the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party brought her to see the struggle to abolish "The prison industrial complex" as part of the revolutionary transformation of society. Her struggle against racism and sexual discrimination brought her to focus on the dimension of racism and sexual repression in the prison system, with a special attention to the fight for the (black) women prisoners and Transgender persons. 

Abolitionism today?

What was a thorough, reasoned political and social movement a half century ago with leading thinkers and criminologists, like Louk Hulsman, Nils Christie, Thomas Mathiesen, is, in the current political climate of war, terrorism, crisis and generalized feeling of fear, too readily dismissed as irresponsible naivety or as an illustration of a criminal insensitivity to the suffering of victims.
The tendency in Western societies is towards constant growth and expansion of the prison system, as well as its ideology, and a globalization of the prison outside its walls. There is no downsizing, let alone a perspective of abolition of the prison.
But maybe it's in these times of despair that there are opportunities to create an awareness and a radical grass-roots movement against prisons. The “good” side of the victories of Trump or Brexit and all the other evils that will follow, is that it makes the actual situation at least visible. Politics of mass incarceration, of extrajudicial executions via drones, of torture, will no longer remain hidden or muffled with liberal or pseudo-left-wing rhetoric. We may have reached a historical breaking-point where prisons and incarceration no longer seem like the solution, but are seen as the  problem and the crime. The brutal economic and racist program of the extreme right across the world, demands that progressives   openly and radically stand up for a program with a completely different vision of society.

Even if today's abolitionist movement has been squeezed by repressive wave after repressive wave during the last decades, we need to pick up that thread again, says Davis. For her, abolitionism is the only way to stop the current state of affairs. By reading the book, her abolitionist vision is linked to both a historical perspective and a modern reworking in terms of our capacity to formulate answers on the very concrete questions and challenges we face in today’s world.   

First, we need to be capable to go beyond our actual situation and existence. We need to learn about the heroic struggles and sacrifices for emancipation in the past and develop our capacity to imagine and reinvent a human future.  
In the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s… what will happen when 2060 rolls around? Will people still be addressing the same issues? And I also think it’s important for us to think forward and to imagine future history in a way that is not restrained by our own lifetimes. (115) “Don’t we want to be able to imagine the expansion of freedom and solidarity in the world…? If this is the case, we will have to do something quite extraordinary: we will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate…” (144) "I do think that a society without prisons is a realistic future possibility, but in a transformed society, one in which people’s needs, not profits, constitute the driving force… It is only a matter of time before people begin to realize that the prison is a false solution” (6).

Second. The abolition of prison demands alternative answers to the actual questions we are confronted with and that are now resolved by prison and incarceration, from poverty and immigration, to racist violence or violence against women. In that sense, abolition of prison will bring us back to root questions, about the need for “systemic change”, and the necessity of creating new democratic institutions. For example, concerning the idea of “security” which became the decisive argument for militarization, prison and incarceration, Davis says:
When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them. We will say demilitarize the police, disarm the police, abolish the institution of the police as we know it, and abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. But we will have only just begun to tell the truth about violence in America” (89).

The struggle for reform and the failure of reform

Opposition to prison today goes, in most cases, not much further than a pragmatic plea for smaller or “open” prisons, aimed at a better (re) integration of the detainees, for fairness in sentencing, or  more humane detention conditions. The debate today is about the acceptable dose of pain and how this pain should be administered by the State. Through storing prisoners as in warehouses? In small or large jails? Through separate sections and prisons for the worst or through mixing them with the general prison population? This constant reform of the prison occupies hundreds of people, from the top of the penitentiary system to the researchers at the universities. The failure of 200 years of reform is clear when we see that the institution of prison is more than ever nestled into the politics, culture, economy of our countries, while the results of its institutionalized practices invariably bear witness to failure.

About prison reform Angela Davis says: " The history of the very institution of the prison is a reform. Foucault points this out. Reform doesn’t come after the advent of the prison; it accompanies the birth of 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…” (21) One could summarize, she says, the history of the prison as follows: “On the one hand there have been calls for changes, less violence, less repression, calls for reform and rehabilitation. But this never really works. And so, on the other hand, there were calls for incapacitation and more punitive modes of control. All in all, the framework has always remained the same.” (22)

This doesn’t mean that we are against reform or improvement of prison conditions.

But reforms must not strengthen prisons, must not expand them and make them more acceptable. Reforms must go hand in hand with an abolitionist stand. For Angela Davis it is like supporting “gay rights within the military and saying at the same time I want to dismantle the Pentagon”. (125) About the struggle to save Mumia Abu-Jamal from the death penalty and the victory obtained when he was removed from death row, she says, “we should have been able to use that as a launching pad for Mumia’s full freedom, for abolition of the death penalty, and, of course also of prisons.” (29).

The prison is not only a building, but also an ideology

Without the fight against the prison as ideology – i.e. the prison as part of our vision on man and of how to organize human society - the anti-prison movement has no chance to win. We should start with recognizing that the prison as a concept deeply anchored in our current world: " Prison abolition appears as a utopian idea precisely because the prison and its bolstering ideologies are so deeply rooted in our contemporary world.” (6) “… The site of the jail and the 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.” (21) "We have to learn to think and act and struggle against that which is ideologically constituted as” normal”. Prisons are constituted as “normal”. It takes a lot of work to persuade people to think beyond the bars, and to be able to imagine a world without prisons and to struggle for the abolition of imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. “(99)


* Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis, Edited and introduced by Frank Barat, Preface by Cornel West, Haymarket Books.

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