Angela Davis On Reparation, Reconciliation, And Prison Abolition

In Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2003, pp. 106) Angela Davis writes:

It is true that if we focus myopically on the existing system–and perhaps this is the problem that leads to the assumption that imprisonment is the only alternative to death–it is very hard to imagine a structurally similar system capable of handling such a vast population of lawbreakers. If, however, we shift our attention from the prison, perceived as an isolated institution, to the set of relationships that comprise the prison industrial complex, it may be easier to think about alternatives. In other words, a more complicated framework may yield more options than if we simply attempt to discover a single substitute for the prison system. The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system.

There are several, by now familiar, components to such reform then. Among others: decriminalizing some activities currently deemed illegal (ending the ‘War on Drugs’ would be an exceedingly good start); reviewing and revising sentencing guidelines (and investigating racial disparities in sentencing); increasing oversight and monitoring of penal facilities to diminish abuses like assault and rape within its confines; restoring the rehabilitative and reformatory capacities of prisons by facilitating the education of inmates; etc.

Yet others call for more radical reconceptualization in the direction of “a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” In the reparative dimension Davis cites the work of the Dutch criminologist Herman Bianchi whose work on restorative justice includes suggestions that “crime needs to be defined in terms of tort” i.e., turning it into an offence against a person rather than the state, and thus replacing imprisonment with other impositions that would attempt to make good the harm done to the victim. In the dimension of reconciliation, Davis recounts the powerful and moving story of Amy Biehl, who was murdered by young South African men in Capetown in 1993. (Biehl’s killers apologized to her parents during the review of their amnesty petition to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; later, her family reconciled with two of the killers–Easy Nofemela and Ntoboko Peni–and even employed them in administrative positions in their memorial Amy Biehl Foundation.)

Implicit in such discussion of reform are, of course, a set of questions pertaining to punishment, revisiting which is an essential step to this process: Why does a social group punish? How does it select those it punishes? What punishment is suitable and appropriate for a particular crime? It is in exploring the space of possible answers to these questions that a society’s most fundamental presumptions about punishment, morality, and justice will be made visible; and it is in exploring alternative answers to the ones currently given that more creative opportunities for reform will present themselves. These opportunities to explore and evaluate alternatives will only be possible, of course, if those who intend to reform heed Peter Biehl’s words, that “sometimes it pays to shut up and listen to what other people have to say, to ask: ‘Why do these terrible things happen? ‘ instead of simply reacting.”

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