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What is Prison Abolition and Why Does it Matter?

Image via Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Despite being home to 4.4% of the world’s total population, the United States of America holds 22% of the global prison population, according to the International Center for Prison Studies. The United States has a prison “addiction,” from the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, to human rights abuses and the mistreatment of prisoners, especially female and trans/non-binary prisoners. There are a spectrum of different proposed solutions when it comes to how to fix the prison system, and one of the voices advocating for change is iconic American civil rights activist, Angela Davis.

In light of her visit to NYU Florence and La Pietra Dialogues this week alongside fellow activist and scholar Gina Dent, LPD addresses the politics of prison and highlights some of the essential information at the basis of this national challenge, including how Davis, Dent, and their allies, are making a difference.

The Politics and Demographics of Mass Incarceration

The United States locks up more people, per capita, than any other nation. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (non-profit and non-partisan), there are roughly 2.3 million people imprisoned in the United States. Of these inmates, around 20% are in for drug possession or other non-violent drug-related crimes. There has been a major spike in the American prison population in particular since the 1970’s, spurred by then-President Richard Nixon’s so-called “war on drugs.” PPI’s 2018 research also indicates that whites are underrepresented in the incarcerated population, while black people are overrepresented.

This is corroborated by a 2014 report by the National Research Council called "Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,” which indicated that the rate of drug use is not dramatically different between white and black Americans, and there is also little evidence that suggests black populations are more likely to sell drugs than whites. Considering these findings as well as prison demographics, the National Research Council has concluded that: “In recent years, drug-related arrest rates for blacks have been three to four times higher than those for whites. In the late 1980s, the rates were six times higher for blacks than for whites." As such, the prison system, in combination with the judicial system and police enforcement, have unfairly been biased against black populations in the United States. Furthermore, as highlighted by Davis in her public dialogue on April 23rd, indigenous populations are often overlooked and separated in data collection and media coverage, despite also being subjected to a much higher rate of incarceration and police violence than whites, according to the Sentencing Project.

The Business of Private Prisons

Private prison firms will often bid for government contracts, since the government seeks extra capacity for prisons that these private companies can provide. Once awarded a contract, these facilities run their own operations with little government involvement. America’s privatized, for profit-prison sector is a $5 billion industry, currently holding over 127,000 inmates. With a severe lack of government oversight and motivations driven by profit, these private institutions may find it lucrative to save money by overcrowding and underserving prisoners. For example, in 2010, the Associated Press released a video of a private Idaho prison institution in which guards ignored a brutal attack on a prisoner that left him permanently disabled.

Neglecting Human Rights and Dignity

Overcrowding, violence, and sexual abuse are just some of the horrific conditions facing inmates in the U.S. prison system. Sandra Hausman, of the Center for Health Journalism, spoke with lawyers and former inmates, writing that prisoners recounted being “stripped of their clothing, given a paper gown to wear, and the cell itself has nothing in it whatsoever. No mattress or anything. It’s void of any kind of visual stimulation, any kind of human contact, and your food is just given through a slot in the door, without any utensils to eat it with, and there’s a grate in the floor that has to be used for a commode.” Likewise, the ACLU has critcized the overuse of solitary confinement, calling it a far cry from rehabilitation, worsening mental illness and even causing it in otherwise previously “healthy” prisoners. “Supermax” prisons are facilities where inmates are held in complete isolation, sometimes even for decades long sentences.

In addition to solitary confinement, there has been much talk about the poor treatment and conditions of women in prisons. The ACLU defended women in the Arizona Department of Corrections in 2015, in a case known as Parsons v. Ryan. This case is centered around the lack of menstrual care for incarcerated women. Deputy Director of the National Prison Project, Amy Fettig, reports that female prisoners in Arizona are only given one thin pad a day, and are forced to work for several hours in their only pair of pants for the week without frequent showers. When a woman wants a new sanitary napkin, she is forced to plead with a male corrections officer, presenting him her used pad to prove her necessity.

The ACLU has also raised serious concerns about overcrowding in prisons, which has been growing since the 1980s and can lead to the depletion of resources like food, and issues such as unsanitary conditions, neglect, and even riots. Between the 1970s and 2000s, prison populations have more than quadrupled, according to PEW Research Center.

What Is Being Done

In 1976, Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble ruled that ignoring a prisoner’s medical needs was the equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment. Despite what should have been a precedent-setting ruling, violations of prisoners’ rights have continued to go largely unchecked and activists are still tackling this problem (which has arguably even worsened with the growth of the private prison sector). In August 2016, then-President Barack Obama authorized the Justice Bureau to begin phasing out the use of private prisons to house federal inmates, however this order was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February of this year. Likewise, President Trump has developed a reputation of taking a hard-line “law and order” stance on crime and his nominee for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, William Otis, has caused some concern within reform movements who find that his belief in more, longer, and harsher prison sentences is too extreme. Trump indicated a plan to reform the prison system in his inaugural State of the Union address, however later revealed that this change would be affected as a consequence of improvements to the economy so that released prisoners can find jobs more easily, rather than any explicit amendments to prisons themselves.

Angela Davis on Prison Abolition

Angela Davis has long been an activist for prison reform, and even further, prison abolition, an ideology that seeks not to make isolated changes to the conditions or means of imprisonment, but to rethink the tradition of imprisonment itself. As the author of the book, Are Prisons Obsolete, she pushes readers to confront the human rights violations perpetrated in the American prison system and how the system parallels the institution of slavery. In a 2009 talk at the University of Virginia, she argued that “prison was supposed to allow people to reform themselves. Incarceration turned out to be far more damaging to the psyche … and could not affect rehabilitation.” Davis is one of the founding members of Critical Resistance, a grassroots movement against the so-called prison-industrial complex, or the use of the prison system to solve or profit from social and economic struggles. She is also affiliated with Sisters Inside, an Australian organization which “exists to advocate for the human rights of women in the criminal justice system, and to address gaps in the services available to them.”

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