This week’s readings addressed the issue of prison reform. In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis critiques the current prison system and suggests that we find “new terrains of justice” to deal with criminal offenses. Richard A. Wright’s In Defense of Prisons is a good counterpoint to Davis’ argument. While Davis argues that we need to discover positive alternatives to the mass incarceration resulting from the “prison-industrial complex”, Wright argues that prisons are a necessary part of any civilized society. The two readings provide a balanced look at the aspects of incarceration as punishment that are critiqued by activists and trusted by conservatives.
Angela Davis criticizes our society’s reliance on incarceration to deal with social problems such as drug abuse, violence, and mental illness. Instead of confronting these issues, we incarcerate those who are most vulnerable to them. Prison has become the only source of punishment, and thus, Davis claims that we are “taking prison for granted”. Prisons are such a huge source of spending and jobs that it is hard to imagine a world without them. Advocates of prison reform also claim that mass incarceration is so ingrained into our society that we fail to acknowledge the racist and sexist nature of the system. Racial minorities make up the majority of the incarcerated population. Davis goes as far as making a connection between prison and slavery, claiming that each is an institution intended to capitalize on the exploitation of a particular group of people. The use of prison labor, as well as the recent increase in the privatization of prisons, has put a price on the incarceration of human beings. The term “prison industrial complex” refers to the intricate web of private corporations, government, correctional facilities, and the media that capitalize on the exploitation of prisoners. The relationship between these institutions is symbiotic; they each promote the others. Davis suggests that rather than seeking a single alternative to the prison system, we must devise a more complicated framework of solutions to solve the problems that crime creates. Resources such as more supportive schools, free and universal physical and mental health care and community rehabilitation programs in conjunction with the decriminalization of many nonviolent offenses (in the drug and sex industry) would create a society in which prisons are not needed as the only form of punishment.
Richard A. Wright’s In Defense of Prisons is an excellent counterpoint to the critiques Davis has for the current prison system. While he does not claim that the current system is completely effective in solving all the problems crime creates, Wright does not see its dismantling as a better alternative. Police and prisons are an essential aspect to any civilized society. In referencing five beneficial social outcomes of imprisonment, Wright argues that the current system (moderately) achieves three of these outcomes: general deterrence, specific deterrence, and incapacitation. Instead of abolishing the system all together, Wright calls for a more rational correctional system that includes selective deterrence sentencing and incapacitation. The key to effective use of imprisonment, Wright claims, is to create a reliable risk assessment to identify chronic offenders who deserve a long-term sentence. The government, law enforcement, judicial system, health care officials, and individuals must agree upon common goals for what prisons are supposed to accomplish. In his closing line, Wright seems as though he is addressing Davis directly when he says: “we should not waste our time optimally effective social institutions, but rather we should work tirelessly to make our social institutions incrementally more rational.”
While Wright’s stance on prison reform is much more reasonable than the almost socialist goals of Davis, truth can be found in both arguments. Davis does make a strong argument for the more humane treatment of prisoners. No social institution should ever capitalize on the dehumanization and exploitation of human beings, regardless of their prior decisions. Further, what does it say about our society specifically when this exploitation reflects overt racism and sexism? The fact that minority communities do not have more positive resources and job opportunities to begin with invites criminal activity into these areas. Wright’s argument is more rational, as it acknowledges that we do not live in a linear society, thus, we can not adopt a linear criminal justice system. This is an area where the two authors agree – that we must devise a more complex framework of solutions to deal with crime, rather than relying on long-term incarceration as the only source of punishment.
 Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press: New York) 2003, 21.
 Ibid., 15
 Richard A. Wright, In Defense of Prisons, 168.