Angela Davis spent 18 months in jail because of her work with Black Panther political prisoners in the 1970s. Now she calls for alternatives to prison all-together.
She spoke at Western last Monday. Davis is a critical figure in the history of America’s civil rights and black power movements. She is currently a professor of the History of Consciousness at University of California Santa Barbara
Davis talked about the prison industrial complex, or the ways in which prisons have become commodified and expanded in a for-profit prison industry run by corporations.
Davis, a tall woman with a confident and engaging presence, didn’t presume to have all the answers. She posed thoughtful questions and encouraged her audience to always think critically and imagine an alternative to incarceration. Davis presented prison abolition as not frightening or dangerous, but one reasonable and realistic part of eradicating the conditions that create the poverty and racism.
“Prisons can be abolished, and we can feel all the safer for that,” she said.
“Look at the people in prison,” Davis said. “They are people the educational system has failed. They are people the health care system has failed. They are people the mental health system has failed. They are immigrants. They are people who probably would have been able to lead productive lives if they had been given the opportunity to get an education, to have an access to healthcare.”
Poverty and racism in institutions, such as education and health care, deny many people the opportunity for success, she said.
In the afternoon before her speech, Davis met with students, faculty, and community organizers for a dialogue.
Members of Community to Community Development, a local farm-worker solidarity organization, told Davis about the increased harassment and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raids that immigrants in our community face. Community to Community asked Davis how they might work with prison abolitionists to oppose the privately run detention centers that detain undocumented immigrants.
Davis said it’s important to make connections between both prison activism and immigrant rights activism and the conditions that create a need for activism for both.
“In part, the fast increase in the number of people behind bars is connected with this out and out assault on immigrants,” Davis said.
She suggested that Community to Community convince nonimmigrants to take the struggle for immigrant rights seriously.
“It’s not just a farm workers struggle,” she said. “It’s not just a struggle of immigrants and their families. It’s related to all of us who believe in some kind of justice and democracy.”
An audience member asked Davis if she’d heard about the shooting at Virginia Tech, which occurred earlier that day. Davis saw the story on CNN at Sea-Tac Airport while she was between flights.
“I think in a situation like this we have to ask ourselves what are the connections between the way in which this society is saturated with violence, culturally saturated with violence, militarily saturated with violence. We have institutions of violence such as the police and prisons,” she said. “What is the relationship between that and the decision one individual might make to use violent means to act out whatever emotional disorder he or she might be going through?”
Davis also reflected on her own time in jail in the early 70s. She was held in the New York House of Detention for 18 months because of her work with political prisoners like the Soledad Brothers.
“The awareness that I and others developed as political prisoners was that it wasn’t just a case of particular individuals who were falsely accused or in prison because of their political beliefs,” she said. “It was about the entire institution. It was about the racist character of the institution. It was about the prison being an apparatus of political repression more broadly.”
During the question and answer, Davis talked about some of the successful campaigns university students have waged against the prison industrial complex. The University of California in Santa Barbara, where Davis teaches, chose not to renew its contract with Sodexho-Marriott at students’ urging. Until last year, Sodexho-Marriott was the largest shareholder in Corrections Corporation of America. Although Sodexho still serves meals to prisoners, Davis believes student protests encouraged Sodexho to divest its investments in Corrections Corporation America.
Many prisoners themselves are engaged in activism. Davis said that prisoners have been fighting for decades to unionize and work on the same payscale as people outside of prison.
“Who’d want to sit up in prison without having anything to do?” she said. “The point is that [prisoners’] captivity should not be exploited for profit.”
Davis said she finds the current exploitation of prison labor reminiscent of convict-leasing after the Civil War. Former slaves were arrested and leased to plantation owners.
Other forms of activism are, “education not incarceration” programs across the United States that address the failure in the education system. Davis criticized the U.S. education system as focusing on discipline instead of knowledge, education, and the joy of learning.
Davis related both poverty and the prison industrial complex to globalization.
“We often don’t think about the extent to which virtually everything has become commodities in our lives,” she said. “The culture we enjoy, the education we try to get, the health care that we all need. It’s really all about profit. One of the reasons why this thing called the prison industrial complex has grown exponentially over the last 25 years has to do with this intensification of globalization and the profitability of the transformation of virtually everything into profitable commodities. Even now, you can say a prisoner is worth a certain amount of money. This is why in rural areas they provide jobs. They provide a boost to the economy.”