Angela Davis’s ‘Are Prisons Obsolete’ Revisited 18 Years Later

Now, 18 years after Angela Davis first wrote Are Prisons Obsolete, just how much worse has American’s prison system gotten?

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When activist and scholar Angela Davis wrote Are Prisons Obsolete in 2003, the growth of the American prison system was already staggering. Davis herself wrote that she never would have thought that the number of incarcerated citizens would reach the heights that it did. Now, 18 years later, the amount of prisons, and thus, prisoners, has only increased, the existing problems Davis reported growing worse. But just how much worse has American’s prison system gotten in the nearly two decades since Davis penned her essay?





Davis takes the first few pages to stress the sheer amount of people imprisoned in the United States. At the time, the number of prisons and jails increased by 81% between 1990 and 2000, but the actual numbers appear miniscule compared to today’s. Davis wrote that 84 federal prisons and 264 private facilities. While Davis addresses that more than just the two types of prisons exist, she doesn’t disclose the exact numbers beyond that. Overall, she wrote that 2,100,146 people resided in prisons.


Today, there exists 110 federal prisons, 1,833 state prisons, and 3,134 local jails, not to mention the juvenile detention centers, immigration detention facilities, and psychiatric hospitals, among others. All of these combined add up to 7,147 total prisons in the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In them dwell 2.3 million prisoners nationally.




Davis hyper focuses on the state of California, in which the number of prisons doubled during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, from 9 to 18. The very next decade, 12 more prisons were built. The number of overall prisons hasn’t increased much in the past years, from 33 to 35, the amount of incarcerated citizens has skyrocketed by comparison.


Davis reported that 157,979 people were incarcerated in California, according to 2002 data. According to 2018 data, 241,000 Californians are now imprisoned. California’s rate of imprisonment stands out nationally, outweighing all other nations except for the U.S., following the trend that Davis predicted in 2003. Currently, 581 per 100,000. For comparison, the next highest rate can be found in the United Kingdom, at 139 per 100,000.




Aside from bringing to light the staggering percentage of imprisoned Americans, Davis highlights the racial makeup of those in jails. Both in California and nationally, people of color had the highest rates of imprisonment, specifically Black Americans. This has, unfortunately, not changed since releasing her essay.


Black and Latino citizens make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population. Although they account for just 13% of the U.S. population, Black people account for 40% of the prison population. Latinos follow a similar trend nationally, making up 19% of prisons d=and just 16% of the country’s population.




In California, Black and Latino populations are similarly overrepresented, while white and Asian American communities are underrepresented, according to 2010 data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative.


Native Americans, while they may not account for a large percentage of incarcerated Americans, remain incarcerated at a rate 38% higher than the average for all groups. In certain states, like Wisconsin, they can account for half of the jail’s population, while making up less than 20% of the local population.




Davis reported that the rate of “female incarceration” cracked double digits in 1977. Her statistics stated that at the time she wrote her essay, the rate was around 51 per 100,000, or around 8 times the rate in 1977.




Currently, the rate of female imprisonment nationally is 10 times the rate it was in 1977, and growing rapidly. The rate of incarceration for female prisoners even outpaces that of male prisoners.





On top of their escalating rate of imprisonment, female prisoners were under the constant threat of sexual assault, according to Davis. This reality for women prisoners has yet to change. According to RAINN, an astounding 80,600 prisoners are assaulted each year.


The same source states that 60% prison and jail staff perpetrate 60% of these assaults. On top of this, 50% of all sexual interactions between inmates and staff is nonconsensual, and 100% of it is illegal.


The same issue that plagued women inmates, and inmates at large, 18 years ago continues today.




Prisoners were historically subject to experimentation and unpaid labor in the United States. A convenient clause in the 13th Amendment permits slavery as a form of punishment for crime. Thus, the post-Civil War era saw the prison population become less and less white, and more and more Black. Those Black Americans freed from slavery soon found themselves in the prison, performing the same virtually unpaid labor that they had prior to their “freedom.” The same can be said about today.




As stated before, prisons contain mostly POC inmates. Private corporations saw this new means of labor before Davis wrote about it in 2003, as a means to produce their goods and man their customer service lines at a low, low cost. These corporate interests are still at large in many of America’s prisons.


The following brands/corporations utilize prison labor in some form:

    • Mcdonalds
    • Wendys
    • Walmart
    • Starbucks
    • Sprint
    • Verizon
    • Victoria’s secret (was mentioned in Davis’s novel 18 years ago)
    • Fidelity Investments
    • JCPenney
    • Avis
    • American Airlines
    • Whole Foods
    • IBM


The price for this labor? Pitiful. For non-industry jobs, the average salary on the higher end is just 0.63 cents per hour. For industry jobs, that number rises to $1.41 an hour. The average workday, as assumed by the data, is around 6.5 hours a day for non-industry jobs, and closer to 7 hours a day for industry jobs.




So what do we make of the little progress we have made, as well as the incredible steps back. Movements for prison abolition do exist today, and are attempting to make the same changes that Davis sought to 18 years ago through Are Prisons Obsolete. The urgency, as it was then, is surely pressing to improve the conditions which prisoners live under, as well as reduce the number of imprisoned citizens in total.


There are even movements to abolish the prison system, as Davis suggested in 2003. The greatest takeaway from this data might be just how much things spiral out of control, and how far those who wish to see the system improve have to go to realize their vision.