In this slim, provocative volume, activist, scholar and author Angela Y Davis addresses the proverbial elephant in the room by asking the question that forms the title of the book. Do prisons truly do what they are meant to do?

She probes the question by researching the history of the prison in North America, and by examining and exposing the damning connection between prisons and profits – and the effect of the prison-industrial complex on society’s most vulnerable and oppressed people.

Davis argues that institutionalised racism makes the systematic incarceration of people of colour palatable, even expected. She looks at how the politics of gender plays out for incarcerated women. She invites us to think about a world without prisons – such a world would necessarily have to be a much more just, equitable one.

In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the celebration of black girl magic (a phrase used to refer to the resilience of black women against all odds), Davis’s question is more urgent than ever.

It stretches beyond its immediate provenance, and becomes an insistent demand to the world’s prisons: whom are you incarcerating, and why? Whose power and wealth is the prison system protecting, and at whose expense?

For the way in which it forces us to look at ourselves, Davis’s book is a classic for our times. The fact that Davis herself was a victim of the system she questions makes the book all the more significant.

Published in 2003.