This book was another gift from my brother, but I didn’t particularly like it. Although Davis clearly demonstrates that prisons are often hellish places unfit for human inhabitation, I was disappointed by her failure to present a compelling, concrete alternative; the last chapter, titled “Abolitionist Alternatives”, merely mentions some guiding principles for creating new solutions and concludes with a feel-good forgive-the-people-who-killed-your-child story.
Are Prisons Obsolete? also neglected what I would consider one of the biggest barriers to abolishing prisons: fear. I believe that many people continue to view imprisonment as a suitable form of punishment not only for its punitive effects but also because locking up “dangerous” people keeps them out of society, where they might steal your car, kidnap your child, or murder your friend. It will be hard to reduce or eliminate prisons without addressing this fear.
Don’t get me wrong – I believe that we incarcerate far too many people, most of whom are minorities, and that many of these so-called criminals receive terrible treatment within prison walls. Davis does a decent job of highlighting both of these issues, and bringing issues to light can be an important contribution. But nothing is “obsolete” until it’s been replaced, and I felt that she didn’t provide a clear replacement for imprisonment, thereby failing to answer the question posed by the title.