Prisoners: Modern Day Slaves

Based on a study of U.S. prisons by the Washington-based Sentencing Project, in 1990, almost 1 out of every 3 black males was either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole (19). If this wasn’t already shocking to hear, it is also appalling to know that more than 1 in 10 Latino men and 78% of black women were also either in jail or prison, or on probation or parole. In Angela Davis’s book entitled, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” Davis stuns her audience with the harsh truth about prisons in the United States of America. Although each chapter in her book shocked me, I will be following on the chapter entitled, “Slavery, Civil Rights, and Abolitionist Perspectives Toward Prison”.

When I first began to read this book, I was extremely skeptical. The way that Davis criticized prisons made me wonder what her thoughts were on alternatives to prisons. All of my life, I have been taught that if you are bad, you are punished. I always knew that people who committed horrible crimes went to prison. What I never thought about before was what happened once the criminals were prisoners. I never considered what happened to these men and women in jail. It is still hard for me to imagine what a life without prisons would be like. Davis compares this common feeling about prisons, to the way many people in the South felt before the abolition of slavery. Many people could not imagine a legal system that was based on racial equality (23). Under the segregation laws of Jim Crow, African-Americans were officially considered second-class citizens. They were not given the opportunity to vote, to have an education or a proper job, and were not given housing rights (25). When comparing slaves to modern day prisoners, the rights and opportunities they have are relatively the same. Slaves may even have been considered to have more freedom and respect. Although slaves suffered extreme physical abuse daily, slave owners most likely still were concerned for the survival of slaves, considering each individual represented an investment (32). In contrast, convicts are not leased or rented out as individuals and their survival or death does not affect the profitability of a convict crew (32).

On Tuesday, we watched a documentary about modern day prisons and how immoral they are. The documentary included many statistics, one in particular which shocked me the most. The statistic stated that more white people are arrested for crimes, but 2/3 of the people in prisons are African-Americans. This shocking statistic can be compared to the 1880’s, when guilt was, “frequently assigned to a black person regardless of the perpetrator’s race” (30). Although the majority of prisoners in Alabama during this time period were white, African-Americans were still considered “the South’s true criminals”. The increase of black prisoners in the South during this time, strengthened the belief that African-Americans were “inherently criminal and, in particular, prone to larceny.” (29). When reading this section in Davis’s book, I couldn’t help but be reminded of “The Clark Doll Experiment”. In this experiment, Dr. Clark showed children of color two different dolls (one being black and the other being white) and asked the children to identify the doll that looked “bad”. Shockingly enough, the majority of the children chose to label the African-American doll as the “bad” doll. This experiment has been repeated several times and each time it is repeated, the results are relatively the same. In my opinion, the results of this experiment may not have been the same if the Black Codes were not established after the abolition of slavery. These codes prohibited vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts, but were only criminalized if the person was black (28). The results of “The Clark Doll Experiment” can also be compared to modern day racial profiling. With racial profiling, the police can target a person for no reason other than the color of their skin (30).

Another point that Davis makes in this book, is that prisons were first designed to rehabilitate criminals and to provide convicts “with the conditions for reflecting on their crimes and, through penitence, for reshaping their habits and even their souls.” (26). A perfect example of this is the imprisonment of Malcolm X in the 1950’s. During the time that Malcom was imprisoned, he spent a large amount of his time reading and educating himself. He even noted that, with the books available to him and the time he had in order to read them he, “never had been so truly free” in his life. Malcom X is famously remembered for his prison literature and can clearly look back at the time he was imprisoned as a life changing rehabilitation. Eddie Ellis states in his documentary that, “the more education [convicts] had, the better they would be able to deal with themselves and their problems” (57). Sadly, our government obviously does not feel the same way. In 1994, all Pell Grants were eliminated for prisoners, which then defunded and eventually abolished all higher educational programs in prisons (58).

So what is the harsh reality of our prisons today? The prisoners in our jails are treated as modern-day slaves, without rights and without basic privileges such as an education. Every idea that was originally designed for prisons, in order to rehabilitate convicts and reshape their souls has not been followed through. Our prisons are causing much more damage than they are improving the lives of Americans. Although Davis suggests many alternatives, it is clear that the answer is not easy in how we can successfully eliminate prisons and keep a manageable society without rapists and murderers roaming our neighborhoods. Even though it is ideal to live in a society in which prisons are either just or eliminated completely, I do not believe that any change will occur in the near future.


Davis, Angela. Are Prisons Obsolete?. New York: Open Media/Seven Stories Press, 2003.

About MeghanB

I am a 21 year old Senior at the University of Pittsburgh. I'm majoring in Psychology and am working on completing a certificate in Women's Studies.
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One Response to Prisoners: Modern Day Slaves

  1. channabach says:

    Great post. Your analysis of the issues Davis raises is very compelling, and I particularly like the connection you make to the Clark doll interviews.

    You raise the question of alternatives to prisons, and I know this is definitely the most challenging part of Davis’s book and the issue of prison abolition more broadly. And you do a nice job of pointing out the connections between the issue of imagining alternatives to the prison and imagining alternatives to slavery. I’m curious what you made of Davis’s last chapter where she actually talks about particular ideas for alternatives (end to drug criminalization, end to sex work criminalization, decarceration of schools and increasing education priorities, free state-funded drug rehab for everyone, reconciliation processes, etc.). Do any of these ideas sound good to you? What would you add to the list?

    Nice job.

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