Livin the American Dream

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.[1] 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”.[2] 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.”[3]

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.

[1] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press: New York) 2003, 21.

[2] Ibid., 15

[3] Richard A. Wright, In Defense of Prisons, 168.


2 Responses to “What’s wrong with the prison system?”

  1. William on February 9th, 2009 9:33 pm

    A “SINGLE VOICE PROJECT” is the official name of the petition sponsored by: The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP)


    The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) is a grass roots organization driven by a single objective. We want the United States government to reclaim sole authority for state and federal prisons on US soil.
    We want the United States Congress to immediately rescind all state and federal contracts that permit private prisons “for profit” to exist in the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction. We understand that the problems that currently plague our government, its criminal justice system and in particular, the state & federal bureau of prisons (and most correctional and rehabilitation facilities) are massive. However, it is our solemn belief that the solutions for prison reform will remain unattainable and virtually impossible as long as private prisons for profit are permitted to operate in America.

    Prior to the past month, and the fiasco of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and now the “Big Three” American Automobile manufacturers, the NPSCTAPP has always felt compelled to highlight the “moral Bottom line” when it comes to corrections and privatization. Although, we remain confounded by the reality that our government has allowed our justice system to be operated by private interests. The NPSCTAPP philosophy has always been “justice” should not be for sale at any price. It is our belief that the inherent and most fundamental responsibility of the criminal justice system should not be shirked, or “jobbed-out.” This is not the same as privatizing the post office or some trash pick up service in the community. There has to be a loss of meaning and purpose when an inmate looks at a guard’s uniform and instead of seeing an emblem that reads State Department of Corrections or Federal Bureau of Prisons, he sees one that says: “Atlas Prison Corporation.”

    Let’s assume that the real danger of privatization is not some innate inhumanity on the part of its practitioners but rather the added financial incentives that reward inhumanity. The same logic that motivates companies to operate prisons more efficiently also encourages them to cut corners at the expense of workers, prisoners and the public. Every penny they do not spend on food, medical care or training for guards is a dime they can pocket. What happens when the pennies pocketed are not enough for the shareholders? Who will bailout the private prison industry when they hold the government and the American people hostage with the threat of financial failure…“bankruptcy?” What was unimaginable a month ago merits serious consideration today. State and Federal prison programs originate from government design, and therefore, need to be maintained by the government. It’s time to restore the principles and the vacated promise of our judicial system.

    John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is while the sun is shinning”. Well the sun may not be shinning but, it’s not a bad time to begin repair on a dangerous roof that is certain to fall…. because, “Incarcerating people for profit is, in a word WRONG”

    There is an urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of cynicism, indifference, apathy and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
    It is our hope that you will support the NPSCTAPP with a show of solidarity by signing our petition. We intend to assemble a collection of one million signatures, which will subsequently be attached to a proposition for consideration. This proposition will be presented to both, the Speaker Of The House Of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi) and the United States Congress.

    Please Help Us. We Need Your Support. Help Us Spread The Word About This Monumental And Courageous Challenge To Create Positive Change. Place The Link To The Petition On Your Website! Pass It On!

    The SINGLE VOICE PETITION and the effort to abolish private “for profit” prisons is the sole intent of NPSCTAPP. Our project does not contain any additional agendas. We have no solutions or suggestions regarding prison reform. However, we are unyielding in our belief that the answers to the many problems which currently plague this nation’s criminal justice system and its penal system in particular, cannot and will not be found within or assisted by the private “for profit” prison business. The private “for profit” prison business has a stranglehold on our criminal justice system. Its vice-like grip continues to choke the possibility of justice, fairness, and responsibility from both state and federal systems.
    These new slave plantations are not the answer!

    For more information please visit: or email:
    To sign the petition please visit:


    William Thomas
    National Community Outreach Facilitator
    The National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons
    P.O. Box 156423
    San Francisco, California 94115

  2. September Sandoral on June 11th, 2010 10:07 am

    I wrote a similar blog on this subject but you nailed it here.