Activist Angela Davis to Headline Conference on Prison Populations, Spend a Week in Residence

April 13, 2009 — An estimated 32 percent of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetimes, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic males and 5.9 percent of white males, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"The criminal justice system represents a new racial cleavage in America," said Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. "In stark contrast to the watershed political gains blacks made in the decades since the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement, prison has become a normal part of life for one in three black men in their 20s."

While African Americans constitute 12.4 percent of the population, they make up almost half of all prison inmates. Many attribute their disproportionate numbers to changes in criminal justice policies, such as mandatory sentencing for drug-related crimes, and the ongoing problems of poverty and racial bias.

The Woodson Institute will present a multidisciplinary symposium, free and open to the public, on "The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequality and Justice," featuring activist and scholar Angela Davis, April 16 and 17. (See complete schedule below.)

U.Va. faculty members, including Vesla Weaver in politics, Eric Lott in English and Marlon Ross in English and at the Woodson Institute — along with graduate fellows from the Woodson Institute will complete the slate of participants.

On the first day of the symposium, two panels will focus specifically on causes of the growth of what Davis calls the "prison industrial complex."

The opening panel discussion will consider the theoretical and historical foundations of shifting policy choices and rising imprisonment. The second will feature new research on the impact of felon disenfranchisement on communities of color, as well as the effects of incarceration on job opportunities and their stratification by race.

Davis will give the keynote address following Thursday's second session.

On April 17, attention will shift to research that evaluates the consequences and implications of the rise in imprisonment.

The symposium will conclude with a roundtable discussion featuring policy experts, practitioners and academics, who will make suggestions addressing related issues and to the question, "Where do we go from here?" 

Davis' participation in the conference is part of a weeklong residency at the Woodson Institute, beginning April 13, during which time she will visit several classes.

In 1970, Davis was put on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted List" because a shotgun registered in her name was used in the kidnapping and slaying of a judge. At first she fled, but was apprehended in New York and went to jail.

Young people all over the world rallied against her arrest and confinement during the 18 months before her trial, and protest songs were written and performed for her. She was acquitted of all charges in the incident.

Davis is now a historian and philosopher who has also conducted extensive research on issues related to race, gender and imprisonment. Her most recent books are "Abolition Democracy" and "Are Prisons Obsolete?"

She is often associated with the Black Panthers and with the black power politics of the period. She was active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before joining the Black Panthers. She joined the Communist Party when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and ran for U.S. vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984, but has since left the party. Today she considers herself a democratic socialist.

She has been an activist and writer promoting women's rights and racial justice while pursuing an academic career as a philosopher and teacher at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She is professor emeritus of history of consciousness, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, and of feminist studies.

The author of eight books, Davis has lectured throughout the United States as well as in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

A consistent theme of her work has been the range of social problems associated with incarceration and the generalized criminalization of those communities that are most affected by poverty and racial discrimination.

Davis is especially concerned with what she sees as a tendency to devote more resources and attention to the prison system than to educational institutions. She now urges her audiences to consider the possibility of a future without prisons as a 21st-century movement.

The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequality and Justice — Schedule

Thursday, April 16: Rotunda Dome Room (except where noted)
9-9:10     a.m.: Opening Remarks
• Deborah McDowell, director of U,Va.'s Carter G. Woodson Institute


• Mary Ellen Curtin, George Washington University, "The Legacy of Slavery: Continuity and Change in the Southern African American Prison Experience, 1910–1955"
• Heather Thompson, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, "America's Second Prison Crisis: Locating the Origins of Today's Race to Incarcerate, and the Key to it End, in the Long 20th Century"
• Jonathan Simon, University of California, Berkeley, "Violence: Mass Incarceration, the '60s and the Racialization of Violent Crime"
• Michelle Alexander, Ohio State University, "Race, Drugs and the New Jim Crow"
• Eric Lott, University of Virginia (Moderator)
• Tim Lovelace, University of Virginia (Respondent)


• Lisa L. Miller, Rutgers University, "Black Invisibility and Racial Injustice: Politics and Punishment in U.S. Federalism"
• Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project, "The Racial Dynamics of Criminal Justice Policy"
• Aleesha Fowler, University of Virginia, "Felon Disenfranchisement and American Citizenship"
• Ruth Gilmore, University of Southern California, "Profiling Alienated Labor: Racism, Prison Growth, and Premature Death"
• Lisa Woolfork, University of Virginia (Moderator)
• Fred Heblich, University of Virginia, Assistant Supervisory Federal Public Defender (Respondent)

4-5:30 p.m.:  FOCUS ON VIRGINIA: A ROUNDTABLE ON PRISON AND ITS AFTERMATH, Minor Hall Auditorium, room 125

• Kay Allison - President, Quest Institute Inc., Director of Books Behind Bars
• Herbert Dickerson - Case Manager, Aids Services Group
• Harold Folley - Community Organizer, The Virginia Organizing Project
• Eddie Harris - Parent Educator, Children, Youth, and Family Services
• Eddie Howard - Board of Directors, Restorative Community Foundation
• Lisa Nelson - Re-Entry Specialist, Offender Aid and Restoration
• Jim Shea - Virginia Organizing Project
• Helen Trainor, Director Virginia Incarcerated Persons Project, Legal Aid Justice Center
• Karen Waters, Executive Director, Quality Community Council, Inc. (Moderator)

7:30-9 p.m., KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Newcomb Hall Ballroom   

• Angela Y. Davis, "Surveillance, Imprisonment and the Quotidian Work of Race"

Friday, April 17: Minor Hall Auditorium (Room 125)


• Vesla Weaver, University of Virginia, "The Impact of the Carceral State on Citizenship and Citizens’ Sense of the State"
• Joy James, University of Texas and Williams College, "The Prosecution of Race and Rape: Framing the Case of Ben LaGuer in the 2006 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Campaign"
• Michael Owens, Emory University, "The Problem is Not Punishment, Per Se: Policies and Attitudes Towards Felons as Polity Members"
• Lynn Sanders, University of Virginia (Respondent)


• Kimberly Blankenship, Duke University, "Incarceration, Sexual Relationships, and Racial Disparities in HIV/Aids"
• Charles Lewis, Howard University, "The Economic and Relational Penalties of Incarceration"
• Christopher Wildeman, University of Michigan, "Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage"


• Claudrena Harold, University of Virginia, "If They Come for Us in the Morning: Prison Narratives and the Search for a Radical Black Subjectivity"
• Anoop Mirpuri, University of Virginia and the University of Washington, "Theorizing Black Captivity"
• Adom Getachew, University of Virginia, "Rethinking the Exceptionality of Guantanamo Bay: Thoughts on Incarceration in the Age of 'Terror'"
• Victor Cabas, "Blues, Work Songs and Hollers: Crime and Punishment in Story and Song"
• Sandy Alexandre, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Moderator)
• Marlon Ross, University of Virginia (Discussant)

— By Anne Bromley

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