Prison Politics

Angela Davis takes on the criminal justice system

Angela Davis became the nation's most famous inmate when she was locked up in the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village nearly 30 years ago. The FBI had put Davis on its Ten Most Wanted list after a gun registered to her was used in a fatal courtroom shooting. But Davis's fight on behalf of prisoners did not end when a jury acquitted her.

Now Davis is launching a national campaign with an upcoming conference titled "Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex." This event, scheduled for September 25 through 27 at the University of California at Berkeley, is expected to attract 1000 activists and scholars. It marks a new nationwide effort to organize opposition to the U.S.'s rapidly expanding prison system. In a recent interview, Davis talked to the Voice about the upcoming conference, her life as an inmate, and what she wants Americans to know about crime and punishment.

Village Voice: How do you think the experience of imprisonment has changed since you were in jail?

Angela Davis
David Bauman/ The Press-Enterprise
Angela Davis

Angela Davis:Many of the material conditions have become better. When I was in jail in New York, the Women's House of Detention in the Village was a dungeon. It was teeming with mice and roaches. I don't know how many roaches I spit out of the black coffee that I drank. Feeling the mice crawling over me at night was a nightmare. I'm not saying that there aren't mice and rats and roaches anymore, because there are on Rikers Island. But there has been attention to cleanliness.

Since then, the technologies of the system have really changed. In the new prisons, [guards] can push a button and they can lock down everyone in the entire prison at the same time. There is an attempt to create the possibility of controlling [and] surveilling ever larger numbers of prisoners with ever smaller numbers of guards. That is very scary. I think that the deprivation of human rights is even worse today.

What first sparked your interest in the politics of prisons? I became interested in prison issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a consequence of working in several campaigns to free political prisoners such as Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins, and other members of the Black Panther Party.

When I became a member of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, I had the opportunity to correspond with George Jackson, and it was actually as a result of my own relationship with him that I began to think more deeply about the role of prisons. He insisted on thinking not only about political prisoners, but thinking about the political function of the prison.

However, it was not until I was myself imprisoned that I began to think seriously about the need to include prison issues on any progressive social agenda. I certainly had not seriously considered issues related to women in prison prior to my own imprisonment.

You use the term "prison industrial complex" in the title of your conference. What does that mean? We have decided to make the prison industrial complex the main organizing framework of this conference because this phrase captures the symbiotic connection between the corporate economy and the punishment industry. Prisons have become an enormous source of corporate profit while they simultaneously devour social resources needed for education, housing, health care, and welfare. Corporations that one would not expect to be involved in punishment--IBM, Motorola--often use or contract with other companies that directly rely on prison labor.

Why is a "prison industrial complex" emerging at this point in history? The industrialization of the economy has destroyed some of the jobs that working-class people, and especially people of color, used to be able to rely on. Leaving so many people without jobs necessarily creates a situation where an underground economy is going to develop [with] drugs that leads directly into the prison system.

So rather than attempting to address pressing social needs, the people who have these needs are simply considered an expendable population to be thrown away, to disappear into an ever increasing and ever repressive network of prisons.

Why do you think women--and especially African American women--comprise the fastest-growing segment of the prison population? [Professor] Beth Richie found that a vast number of the women she interviewed [at Rikers Island] had histories of violent abuse. The point that Richie makes is that certain populations of women--poor women, women of color--are subjected to a double bind. They are targets of violence within domestic settings, and they are targets of state violence.

There are middle-class white women who are beaten up by their partners, but they aren't subjected to the kind of state surveillance that would lead them into prison. They can go out and do some of the same things that poor women are doing--shoplifting and so forth--but they are not subject to the same kind of surveillance that would criminalize them before they've ever committed a crime. That combination of state-inflicted criminalization and patriarchal violence in the home is the key to understanding this web of punishment which poor women and women of color are caught in.

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