Prison Politics


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: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.

Is the public’s attitude about prison issues today different from its views in the 1960s and 1970s? The fact that so many of us were political prisoners–and were designated as common criminals–caused people to think about the ideological function of criminalization. Of course, that was before the shift toward conservative consciousness. Now crime is something that every politician–including the people we call progressives–feels obliged to raise to guarantee election.

Why do you think crime has become America’s hottest political issue? I don’t think anyone in this country escapes the fear of crime. Studies have indicated that the people who are most afraid of crime are the people who are least likely to be victims of crime. But I think that the fear that people experience in relation to crime is often about a whole range of things. It’s about projection of fear on the criminal rather than thinking about all of the things that create insecurities.

It used to be that Communism was the enemy. But we don’t have the Communist enemy anymore as a way to deflect all of those fears. So now there are other enemies. The “criminal” is the enemy. The “welfare mother” is the enemy. The “immigrant” is the enemy.

In what ways do you hope your campaign encourages Americans to reevaluate their attitudes about crime? I think we need to disconnect crime from punishment. There is a widespread tendency to assume that punishment is a direct result of crime. In other words, the assumption is that people are punished because they commit crimes. If we do not succeed in unhooking “crime and punishment” we will never understand the connection between race and punishment or crime and punishment.

People of color are subject to far more intense modes of surveillance than white people. Take drugs, for example. Studies indicate that although the rate of illicit drug use among white people is actually greater than among black people, black people are arrested and convicted on drug charges far more frequently.

Other studies have demonstrated that a majority of people have committed a crime at some point in their lives. But only among those populations that are criminalized–even before their members commit crimes–can we expect high rates of arrest and imprisonment.

What do you think the future holds? It’s scary. We’re looking at the prospect of the majority of black men being behind bars within the next decade.

At the same time, I think that people are more receptive to critiques of the prison system than they were five years ago. Even in the established media, like the Times, the discourse is beginning to rupture. The whole criminalizing discourse is not as powerful as it might have been five years ago. The reason why we’re organizing this conference is because we think this is the time to launch a national movement.