Stanford Review - Archive - Volume XXVIII - Issue 3 - News
Prof. Davis on Prison Reform
by Mark Zavislak
On Thursday, February 25, Stanford students had the rare opportunity to hear Angela Davis, professor of the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Ms. Davis is also the author of Women, Race & Class (1981) and Women, Culture & Politics (1989) among other texts. In 1994, she received an appointment as the University of California Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies.
Prof. Davis of UCSC fields questions.
LaDoris Cordell, the Vice Provost for Campus Relations, first introduced Ms. Davis, outlining the critical parts of her life. Ms. Cordell said, "Professor Davis has now devoted her life to advocating for [sic] the abolition of the existing prison system. She was one of the founders of Critical Resistance, a national network of a variety of individuals who have come together to challenge corporate responsibility for the expanding prison populations."
Critical Resistance describes itself as seeking "to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). We do this by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure. As such, our work is part of global struggles against inequality and powerlessness. The success of the movement requires that it reflect communities most affected by the PIC. Because we seek to abolish the PIC, we cannot support any work that extends its life or scope."
Ms. Davis began by saying a few words about Stanford's Black Liberation Month. She mentioned that Newsweek ran a cover article on "Black Power," which displayed several African Americans in high power. Nevertheless, she lamented that "affirmative action has been disestablished in this state under the pretext that racism no longer exists." "What is racism?" she asked. "Can we say that racism can be dismantled or disestablished once and for all?" According to Ms. Davis, the answer is no, because racism "begins to hide in structures, in economic structures, in educational structures, in punishment structures."
This leads into the focus of her talk. She believes that the prison industrial complex has "been very much overdetermined [sic] by racism." What is worse, she claims, is the "global phenomenon" of the prison industrial complex. In viewing the prison structures of society, she indicates that society must follow the "inter-sectional approach: race, class, gender, nation," that is, consider it holistically in how it fits in with the other oppressive structures of society.
Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of Free at Last in East Palo Alto, spoke about the struggle in Delano to prevent a second prison from being built. He explained that he and his colleagues "were able to stop construction so far based upon environmental arguments." But that was very confusing to Mr. Nunn. Why would the state of California ignore all the arguments from the people of Delano while simultaneously being concerned about "the Tipton Kangaroo Rat?" He stressed that the biggest problem with the prison proposal is that "the largest population in California state prisons are Latino males, so the action is primarily getting the Latino community to house its own throughout the state. What they're building in that field is places to contain people of color."
After Ms. Davis took the microphone, she began an interactive discussion, where audience members asked a few questions. The first person's question concerned changing public attitude. He was concerned that the media's ownership was concentrated in so few hands, such that they controlled "the way the public thinks about punishment and perceives prisoners." Ms. Davis suggested that prisoners become much involved. For instance, when organizations such as Critical Resistance hold a conference, they should allow collect calls from prisoners so that their voices could be amplified and heard at the conference.
The next question went directly to the heart of the concept of the abolition of prisons. Davis acknowledged that there are people who definitely belonged in prison. "There are bad people everywhere. There are a lot of people that are never brought before the criminal justice system as well." But she claimed this did not tell the whole story. Concerning women in prison, she stated that "80% or so of them are in prison in connection with drugs. The vast majority of them are in for nonviolent offenses. This is true across the board."
But then she got directly to the question. "Prisons need to be abolished, in so far as they constitute a set of institutions that attempt to address a range of social problems that they cannot address. We abolish prisons by focusing on schools, by focusing on education. We abolish prisons by imagining and developing a system that will address mental health care needs of poor people. We abolish prisons by thinking about drug rehabilitation in a context that is not criminalized. We abolish prisons by creating the kind of support for single mothers that the welfare system was once supposed to be."Ó
Ms. Davis was later surprised at the lack of student knowledge of the recent passage of laws. One student commented that, "I've been asked to ask you what the USA PATRIOT Act is?" To which Ms. Davis responded, "This is Stanford. You don't know what the USA PATRIOT Act is?" much to the nervous laughter of the listeners. "I'm totally surprised that I'm here at Stanford University, and you have not all been talking about this."
Ms. Davis concluded the discussion by reminding everyone that, "It is important to see the institution of the prison as a very integral part of the economic and political and social history of the world, and not think of it as something isolated that we don't want to worry about, that's invisible, that has nothing to do with our lives."
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