Activist Angela Davis Calls for Abolition of Prison System

April 17, 2009 — Walking around the University of Virginia's Academical Village, activist and philosopher Angela Davis remarked that the Lawn rooms seem as cramped as prison cells.

The feeling made her realize that Thomas Jefferson's architecture compels the observer to think about his legacy, Davis said in her keynote address for the Carter G. Woodson Institute's conference, "The Problem with Punishment: Race, Inequality and Justice," held April 16 and 17.

The connection is no mere coincidence. The rooms on the Lawn provide student residents with the privacy to contemplate knowledge, while prison cells confine the prisoner to give him the privacy to penitently contemplate his crime.

The idea of the penitentiary emerged at the same time as the American Revolution, but it has proven a failed experiment in democracy and an institution of racial injustice when one in 100 Americans is behind bars and half of them are black, she said.

Davis called for a new movement to abolish what she called "the prison-industrial complex" in the U.S., which has become the largest jailer in the world.

Violent people should be dealt with, she said, in the context of the reasons behind the violence and how it is perpetuated.

"Simply dumping these people in prison only has the tendency to reproduce more violence," she said.

The American-style penitentiary system is spreading internationally and having a devastating effect, she said, with prisons serving as receptacles for people who can no longer find a place in their societies.

This may be an auspicious moment in U.S. history to confront the prison crisis, marked in part by President Obama's election and the economic crisis, she said.

Davis was one of about 30 scholars and others who participated in the multidisciplinary two-day symposium that aimed to contribute serious discussion to the growing national debate on the growth of the prison-industrial complex and racial disparities in the U.S.

In residency at U.Va. for the week, Davis spoke Thursday night to a packed house in Newcomb Hall Ballroom that included hundreds of students – some even traveling from Charlotte, N.C. – as well as faculty, conference participants and community members, including those who identified themselves as ex-convicts and '60s radicals during the question-and-answer period following her talk.

Davis and Deborah McDowell, director of the Woodson Institute, both mentioned that Jefferson designed not only his renowned buildings at the University and Monticello, but also an early penitentiary. He contracted architect Benjamin Latrobe to design the first prison in Virginia, with cells for solitary confinement.

Putting offenders in prison was considered a more enlightened idea than the less humane conditions and practices criminals were subjected to around the turn of the 19th century, Davis said.

The example of Jefferson's legacy, she said, tells us "to be aware of the histories we inhabit."

The prevalence of corporal punishment for actions that were considered crimes clashed with ideas for the new democracy. Because of slavery, however, the need for corporal punishment persisted, she said.

For example, Davis recounted what ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass told a British audience in London at the time: Although laws were written to sentence a white man to capital punishment only for the crime of murder, there were 70 crimes that could lead a black man to his death.

"These are the historical roots we see today. The ideas were incorrect, but the early American government saw prisons as progressive, a move away from retribution," said Davis, who was active in the black power movement and spent time in jail in the early '70s, before being acquitted at trial.

"Prison was supposed to allow people to reform themselves. Incarceration turned out to be far more damaging to the psyche … and could not effect rehabilitation," she said. "We have to undo past damage.

"Racism fuels the prison-industrial complex," she said. "The vast disproportion of black people makes it clear. … Black men are criminalized."

Law enforcement surveillance determines who gets caught and who goes to prison, Davis explained. Many people commit acts that, if discovered, would result in prison sentences, but they are safe because the police don't target their communities for surveillance.

The assumption, even among some African-Americans, that black people have a proclivity to criminal activities is part of the daily working of racism.

"The fear of free black bodies is contained in the systems and strategies that criminalize racism," Davis said.

She advocated for more productive modes of addressing people who do harm to others and their communities.

"When we think of 2.3 million Americans being in prison on any given day, and all the resources required to sustain the system, why do we not mobilize to change this?" she asked.

It is because of the fear of confronting persistent racism and its history in the U.S., she said. "We are all infected."

Davis pointed out there are no great disparities in drug use among the range of people and communities. Recently, law officers have shifted their surveillance to rural white people, and oddly enough, that has subjected them to the same form of racism to which black men are subjected.

Americans must develop and negotiate social relations to be able to talk about racism without it being so uncomfortable, she said, adding that  a justice system must be created that is not based on revenge, but rather is more restorative.

The political climate seems to be more hopeful, she said, lauding Virginia U.S. Sen. Jim Webb's recent call for prison reform.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact