Angela Davis: make prisons obsolete

August 11, 2011
Angela Davis.

Distinguished US activist, writer and former political prisoner Angela Davis addressed a public forum in Sydney on August 11 organised by the prisoner rights group Sisters Inside.

Davis was a keynote speaker at Sisters Inside's sixth International Conference on the criminalisation of women and imprisonment, held in Sydney over August 10 to 12.

Her speech at the August 11 public forum is below.

* * *

I’ll begin by saying that I live in Ohlone land in the San Francisco bay area in California. I’m really happy to be here and I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Cadigal people.

I wanted to talk about what it means to develop abolitionist strategies and engage in abolitionist activism in a time of global economic crisis.

We’ve been following the events in the UK — the uprisings and the riots in the aftermath of the killing of a young black man in Tottenham — and there is a debate of course about the cause of the riots.

Do they have to do with cuts to social services? Or do they simply reflect what is often described as crass expressions of criminality?

So I’m going to use the time we have left to gesture toward some of the contradictions we encounter as we attempt to engage in these projects of abolition in an age of economic crisis.

Budget crises are usually managed by cuts. At the level of the university and the state some of the most important academic programs have suffered. Black studies programs, feminist programs: these programs have been slashed.

In California, which used to have the very best public education system in the entire country, the funds that are devoted to public education are dwindling and they are being overtaken by funds that are devoted to the expanding prison system.

Now the economy, writ large, is of course in a very bad situation. There’s unemployment, there’s precarious employment and what we have come to call the “precariat” has been produced as a result.

When we look at prisons, the conditions inside are deteriorating as a direct result of this budget crisis.

I visited a couple of months ago the largest women’s prison in the world — the Central California Women’s Facility. There are 3700 women in that prison, which means that its about 180% capacity.

Almost twice as many women are in that institution as should be according to the original designs.

As in the men’s prisons, gymnasiums have been converted into dormitories and programs have been dismantled.

I talked to some of the women who were complaining that there at least used to be programming, there used to be something to do. Now there is absolutely nothing.

And recently the department of corrections began to ration supplies, such as toilet paper, tampons, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste — this is how that budget crisis expressed itself within the prison.

And now each prisoner gets a maximum of two tampons and one pad for each day of her period.

And in addition, each woman receives only one roll of toilet paper per month.

Now if we think about what is happening in California, the recent supreme court decision about overcrowding in California prisons ruled that something like 30,000 prisoners would have to be either released or moved elsewhere.

There are 140,000 prisoners in the California system, which is designed to accommodate approximately 80,000.

What’s interesting is there has been a lot of discussion about the overcrowding of prisons, but the focus has been on men’s prisons.

The impact on women’s prisons is virtually hidden from view.

The point I’m trying to make is that there is a turn towards “de-carceration”, which we as abolitionists see as an important piece in the overall abolitionist strategy.

This turn towards de-carceration is directly linked to the budget crisis. And increasingly, conservatives have began to support strategies of de-carceration.

Not very long ago, the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People] released a report called “Misplaced Priorities”. Its subtitle was “Over Incarcerate, Under Educate”.

The thrust of that report was that funds need to be shifted from prisons to schools, from incarceration to education.

And of course, many of us who have been doing this work for some time have been making precisely that same argument: education, not incarceration.

And then you have people like [former Republican congressperson] Newt Gingrich. Gingrich stands up and says: “I support the NAACP report.”

Now why would Gingrich support de-carceration? It is precisely the conservative context of small government.

And he was welcomed, and the other conservatives who associated themselves with the NAACP report were welcomed in many circles. And many people were very surprised, saying “look at this new ally we’ve got”.

But as a matter of fact he is not an ally, because as abolitionists we cannot myopically consider the question of the prison — we have to place it in a larger context.

So it’s not simply about de-carceration. It’s not simply about abolishing imprisonment. It’s about changing society. It’s about creating the kinds of institutions that will eventually make prison obsolete.

And so Gingrich wants small government. He does not want those funds that would be saved by sending people home, or putting people in other settings, [used] to create the kinds of institutions that would enable us to move in the direction of a better society.

He simply wants to reduce the budget of the federal government and of state governments: that is all he wants to do.

So I’m making this point because I think that during this period its really important to develop the kind of political context that allows us to articulate for those with whom we struggle — the larger picture of abolition.

We have to be very wary of those who may use the vocabularies that we have developed and the approaches that we have developed and ways that, in the final analysis, strengthen and rebuild the system that depends on imprisonment and which relies on imprisonment.

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