Should We Abolish Prisons? Angela Davis’ Argument Against Them

In a 2011 book, Angela Davis poses a question: are prisons obsolete? In this article, we will explore her arguments for prison abolition.

Mar 3, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

angela davis should we abolish prisons


Angela Davis is one of the most prominent activists and political theorists of the past 50 years. She studied under prominent theorist and psychoanalyst Herbert Marcuse, a member of the Marxist Frankfurt School along with Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer and others. This article examines her arguments in favor of prison abolition, with a particular focus on her most extensive treatment of prison abolition, which is in her 2011 book, Are Prisons Obsolete?


The two stages of Davis’ argument, being a critique of the present penal system and a characterization of possible alternatives, inform the structure of this article. The first half of the article focuses on her diagnosis of the effect prison has on our collective psyches, whilst also touching on her analysis of the rise of mass incarceration. The second half of the article offers an explanation and concise assessment of the alternatives which Davis suggests.


Analyzing Angela Davis’ Work: Two Kinds of Abolitionist Arguments 

A poster celebrating Angela Davis’ release from prison, 1972, via Wikimedia Commons.


 It is useful to distinguish two argumentative strategies one might take in advocating for prison abolition. The question for anyone interested in setting out an abolitionist framework is whether to focus on the wrongness of prisons in some fundamental way – to say, in other words, that it is always wrong to imprison people no matter what – or to argue that there is no plausible way of using imprisonment in a restrained and just way, even if in some individual case imprisonment might be justified.


Broadly speaking, the first kind of argument belongs to the realm of ethics, and the latter to political theory. By and large, Angela Davis focuses on the second kind of argument. It is important to notice that the power of this argument is not undermined by its self-conscious contingency and historicity. One need not be interested in every possible world, only this one, when deciding whether to retain or abolish a social institution.

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Angela Davis as a young woman, 1974, from Wikimedia Commons.


Davis’ argument can be understood in two stages. First, there is the critique of the current carceral system. Then, there is the analysis of plausible alternatives. Davis’ extensive engagement with the movement against mass incarceration makes certain arguments of hers seem, if not less powerful, then certainly less original than they were 20 or 30 years ago.


This includes her analysis of the ‘prison industrial complex’, which is the hand that various corporations – private prisons, infrastructure firms, security firms – had in promoting mass incarceration. However, her critique of the current carceral system is broad, subtle and in parts remains poorly understood.


We will focus on just one argument here, which begins as follows:


“Because it would be too agonizing to cope with the possibility that anyone, including ourselves, could become a prisoner, we tend to think of the prison as disconnected from our own lives. This is even true for some of us, women as well as men, who have already experienced imprisonment.”


The Role of Fear and Authority 

A photograph of Angela Davis in Bogotá, Colombia, 2010, from Wikimedia Commons.


Davis’s analysis of the role of fear and authority in the functioning of prisons is fascinating. Firstly, it constitutes a succinct but effective attempt at theorizing the effect prisons have on our ‘collective psyche’, made all the more plausible by the year which Davis herself spent in jail. ‘It is too agonizing’ is a near-perfect turn of phrase, conveying both the sense that ‘it is too painful’ and ‘it is too worrisome or anxiety inducing’.


We, in Western countries, are used to theorizing the passive acceptance of social or political institutions which exist elsewhere in this way; that is, as a kind of turning away from social realities which would be unbearable to face directly. It feels natural to think about life under authoritarian governments this way.


Consider China, for instance. In the last year for which reliable data presently exists for both countries (2017), China has imprisoned 124 people per 100,000 inhabitants, while the United States has imprisoned 443 people per 100,000. This is just one point of comparison out of thousands, but it should raise the possibility that our reluctance to conceive of ourselves as frightened by our own political institutions is delusional.


“Only ‘Evildoers’ Go to Prison”

Angela Davis lecturing, 2014, from Wikimedia Commons


The second part of Davis’ argument is as follows:


“We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the ‘evildoers’ to use a term recently popularized by George W. Bush. Because of the persistent power of racism, “criminals” and “evildoers” are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color.”


Having drawn a plausible link between our desire to look away from the horrors which imprisonment imposes – and which could be imposed upon us – Davis then inflects this universal psychologization with a more controversial, yet still plausible interpretation of that psychologization.


On Davis’ account, repressing the knowledge that any of us could be sent to prison means inventing a reason why such a thing is impossible. One of the easiest ways to do so is to conceive of a cast of people for whom prison is the appropriate place to be, in a way which it never could for us. This is where the kind of Manichean, absolutism of George Bush’s evil-doers comes in handy.


Individualizing Problems and Collective Responsibility

A photograph of Angela Davis as a student in Frankfurt, Germany, 1971, from Wikimedia Commons.


Few people – certainly, very few white people – will find it easy to admit that Davis has a point. Yet, it is necessary to move beyond the hypocrisy of our self-descriptions and towards the selves we reveal by action and omission in order to assess such an argument. Certainly, that people of color regularly face disproportionate abuse at the hands of the state should indicate that there is some level on which white people find it easier to conceive of them as undeserving, delinquent, perhaps even evil.


Sometimes this form of racism can be carefully concealed in a kind of banal, liberal doctrine of ‘responsibility’ and what one deserves for making certain choices. Part of the subtlety of Davis’ argument involves observing the ways in which we can individualize social problems without actually taking responsibility of a more meaningful kind for them.


Davis develops the argument in this vein. “This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”


The east gate at Folsom Prison, 2011, from Wikimedia Commons.


It is easier to find fault in people or groups of people than in abstractions like ‘the justice system’, ‘capitalism’, ‘racism’ and so on. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to locate one’s responsibility for dismantling cruel systems than for punishing cruel people, especially when nobody is really able to stand outside of any such system and make judgments about it.


Those involved in prison abolition are often quick to point out that the problem of mass incarceration is symptomatic of wider social ills and injustice, and they are right to do so. Davis, however, goes further in positing imprisonment as itself an obstacle to addressing social problems.


No One Alternative

A photograph of Alcatraz’s recreation yard, 2019, from Wikimedia Commons.


So, what do the alternatives to prison look like? Davis is at pains to point out that she is not in favor of an alternative, but many alternatives to imprisonment:


“All abolitionist approaches that seek 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 prisonlike substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment.”


The question, then, presumably is where to start? What do we do first, in what order do we do things, what should we focus on? Davis has an answer to that as well: “The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system.” For Davis, it is the ‘myopic’ focus on finding a “like for like” replacement for the prisons system that distracts us from asking what we really want to replace imprisonment with, or – to put the question in a more open way – what we really want to happen after we have abolished imprisonment.


St Peter in Prison, Rembrandt, 1638, via Google Arts & Culture.


It’s fair enough not to want to replace prison with something that occupies the same ‘footprint’. Indeed, it can reasonably be argued that many (perhaps most) of the crimes which people are presently imprisoned for do not deserve punishment of any kind; certainly nothing so severe as imprisonment. Those include non-violent crimes, victimless crimes, crimes in response to circumstances of severe material deprivation and so on.


It would also be fair if Davis and other abolitionists were to point out that a fixation on the most severe crimes – murder, sexual assault, grievous bodily harm – as a way of arguing in favor of the prison system overall seems to be an argument made in bad faith, given how small a proportion of those currently imprisoned have been convicted of those crimes.


The Problem of Serious Violence 

Joan of Arc in Prison by Gillot Saint-Evre, 1833, via Stair Sainty Gallery, London.


However, it is equally reasonable for those who oppose abolition to point out that serious acts of violence have to be fully accounted for by those proposing alternatives to the current prisons system.


At certain points, Davis seems to indicate that the abolitionist alternative to imprisonment for serious and petty crimes might amount to the same kind of thing:


“… positing decarceration 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.”


This then prompts two open questions. First, would such a program eliminate social violence? Second, if the political conditions for such a thorough re-constitution of our political and social institutions didn’t emerge, what would meaningful change to our penal system look like?


Angela Davis’s Solution: The Concept of Dual Power

Angela Davis speaking at a rally, via the New York Times.


These questions require far more attention than there is space for here, but one possible direction is suggested towards the end of Davis’s “Are Prisons Obsolete”. At certain points, Davis seems to be suggesting something like a ‘dual power’ mechanism of change. The concept of ‘dual power’ comes from Vladimir Lenin, and refers to the situation in which two different institutions temporarily exist at the same time, and one manages to outcompete the other for power and authority rather than straightforwardly reforming or replacing that existing institution.


Davis thinks that by supporting our educational and healthcare institutions and thereby allowing them to take on more and more responsibilities currently reserved for the penal system will gradually reduce our collective dependency on them. Some of this is quite persuasive, and the centralization of mental health in Davis’ set of alternatives might represent the best way of articulating the pathway to a society in which violence is far less common.


Yet, Davis seems to be aware that there are major problems with the dual power model, not least that the proposed ‘replacement’ institutions in their current state are far from ideal. Even the most modern iterations of many mental healthcare institutions see extremely high levels of abuse.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.