Our meeting the other day was quite productive. We started out similar to how Are Prisons Obsolete? begins–with some wondering about if prison abolition was really realistic. By the end, we had debunked that idea with the help of Angela Davis’s comparison to American slavery and Jim Crow (how they seemed impossible to ever get rid of too) and moved very far in the other direction.

We wondered what it meant for punishment to be “natural” and the role that capitalism plays in our ideas about the social construction of the world and how we can think about policing as a problem on the street and in the home. We also considered the time of publication–the book is pre-Black Lives Matter and makes no mention of Universal Basic Income (UBI) being one of many concrete ways to reduce imprisonment.

I was happy to be able to get this group together and to participate in the discussion myself.


From Michael:

After reading Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? and, though it was written two decades ago, I am convinced that her argument challenges the fear of anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) folks, which is rooted in the aversion to systemic and historical analysis of racism and sexism as human constructs.  These constructs were created (not by God or nature) and thus can be deconstructed along with the institutions and systems that perpetuate systemic injustice, especially made manifest in the judicial/incarceration system.

Prisons originally designed to possibly rehabilitate have devolved into systems of punishment and dehumanization, as well as profitability, known as the “prison industrial complex.” The obsolescence of the prison system and thus its deconstruction is to be coupled with a reconstruction of a system “based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance” (Davis 107).

A very interesting read and subsequent conversation with “not school” folks on a controversial and challenging prophetic call for transformation, not just for individuals but for the whole of society, locally and globally! 

From Alliyah:

After reflecting on “Are Prisons Obsolete” by Angela Davis, I came to the reassurance that it is no secret that when we reflect on how the evolution of racism and classism are heavily projected within institutions today. The prison system and the high level of incarceration rate go hand in hand with one another. Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete” creates a dialogue for this conversation by challenging the audience to ask themselves the ultimate question, that if it is believed that racism is immoral or wrong, then why do prisons exist? Davis states “Exploring such connections May offer us a different perspective on the current state the of punishment Industry. If we are already persuaded that racism should not be allowed to define the planets future and if we can successfully argue that prisons are racist institutions this may lead us to take seriously the prospect of the clearing prisons obsolete” (25).

The length of existence may have led society to have taken this method of punishment so lightly for so long that their is a lack of accountability for how it’s integrity has fallen apart overtime. Not acknowledging this demise and failure has created a blindside to the major side affects of why this system is possibly facing eviction and extinction. Such as incarceration, overcrowding, and cheap labor. All of this coincides with the methods and tactics of establishing slavery.

Furthermore Davis is not suggesting that this situation is black or white. It is not going to be easy to overturn something that has created a level normalcy within our world for so long. I think that she just wants us to reconsider what we are doing and challenge the algorithm to create a better one. One that doesn’t lead dehumanization but instead restores and purifies.

Recommended Reading

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr.

Part of My Soul Went With Him by Winnie Mandela

Flying Kites: A Story of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strike

Blood in My Eye by George Jackson

A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison by Dwayne Betts

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey

Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It by Terry Allen Kupers

Discipline and Punishment by Michel Foucault

Hymens and Headscarves: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona

The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting by Judith Levine & Erica R. Meiners

Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Right by Molly Smith and Juno Mac

This is a month long program that gives a small group of people a book and a stipend. A group of five participants will read the book, come to a virtual meeting to talk about it, and write their reflections on the blog. The purpose is to get people to pick up a book and engage with it, to see it as a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. The style is tight-knit, short-termed, and focused. All that is on purpose–to hold people’s interest. There’s a great book in their hands and a reasonable schedule to follow, plus a social component. So it’s like school, but not.

The program is run by Seton Hall University instructor and Ten Dollar Books owner Rachel Wagner. She’s been in education for over ten years and designed Not School to address issues of literacy and poverty. Monetary access to physical books is only part of the reason people often aren’t in the habit of reading. Commitment and community are also major factors. That means deciding it’s worth your time to read and not feeling intellectually isolated. Paying the group to read targets these types of issues head on.

We are looking to raise money to cover web development, books, stipends, and facilitation to begin summer 2022.

Donate to the Not School Literacy Program


Cashapp: $rachel908

Venmo: @rachel908

Zelle: 9084995355

-Rachel Wagner

Contact for more information.