(HOLD:) Ending Mass Incarceration and Mass Criminalization: A Town Hall With Angela Davis

Earlier this month, the political activist, scholar and author Angela Davis sat down with the Drug Policy Alliance's asha bandele for a provocative discussion about America's incarceration crisis and the central role that race and racism play in how this country punishes people and who gets punished. The following is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity:


asha bandele: This is the seventh in a series of public conversations we've hosted here at the Drug Policy Alliance. My name is asha bandele, and we began these discussions back in 2014 with Michelle Alexander. It was a way to open up to a wider community the conversations we were having within our organization about some of the most urgent issues in drug policy and criminal justice reform.

Paramount among that which we've been grappling with is how to achieve one of our own organization's internal and visionary goals, which is ending mass incarceration. It's a subject that advocates, academics and organizers have been raising for at least a full generation, one that's received attention that's been heightened in the last five years because lawmakers and mainstream media have finally caught up to what many of us were saying for so long. In our own conversations at Drug Policy Alliance, we've wondered if ending mass incarceration was the right frame, or if we needed to push it deeper, if we needed to take a dive into the larger contradictions that are inherent in the question of mass criminalization. In general, the culture of punishment on which this nation was built and which looms large in our lives today.

We've wondered privately and aloud, what if we do the urgent and important work of emptying out the prisons but people's lives are still controlled in myriad and dehumanizing ways? Because while it's certainly true that there are 2.2 million people living in the worst conditions in America's prisons and jails, it's also true that more than twice that number are monitored, their movements measured and controlled, their citizenry redacted in ways that diminish their humanity, and I would argue in ways that diminish our collective humanity. It's also painfully true that their defining of particularly, although not exclusively, young black and brown men as criminals, has created what I think is an open hunting season on young black and brown men.

The question before us today is: Do we need to address mass criminalization with the same uncompromising push that many of us are now addressing the question of mass incarceration? If we do, how do we do it in a way such that it's comprehensive and makes qualitative change in the lives of those who've been harmed, and how do we heal the harmed? To think this through with us is a woman who has dedicated the whole of her life to pushing for the recognition and the honoring of people's full humanity. We may rightly think of her as an icon of the Black Power movement or as a former political prisoner. We may rightly think of her as one of the brilliant architects of the current push to end mass incarceration, or we may rightly think of her as a fierce intellectual and academic offering us the sharpest of analyses.

I would be remiss today if I didn't share with you the day-to-day, one-on-one organizer I know her to be. When I think of her, I think about a woman who encouraged me during what was likely the most difficult time in my own life, when prisons disrupted every part of every one of my days, long before any theories had taken full shape in my head, long before any books had been written, before any insecurities in my own heart had been resolved. She was there pushing and encouraging me, showing up at my poetry readings, bringing her sister, bringing her family, telling me to keep going.

I think about the woman who mentored me and so many other young organizers in the 1990s, who rolled up her sleeves and worked around the clock with us as we met to figure out how to build a critical resistance to prisons and the American culture of punishment. I think of a woman who shared her heart and her mind and her voice not once, but over and over again so that I could one day share mine. I am as clear today as I've ever been that the best I have ever offered this world is directly related to the fact that for more than twenty years, she has offered me the best of who she is. It is with personal, unending gratitude and with a love that I will never be able to measure that I welcome Dr. Angela Davis. 

Angela Davis: It's really wonderful to be a part of this conversation, and I thank you for recapitulating the many years that we've known each other and been involved in struggles to end this enormous crisis. Yeah, you've set the stage for the conversation by asking how we begin to shift our thinking from simply ending mass incarceration to ending mass criminalization. Perhaps I'd like to expand it a bit more because the impact of this vast prison industry, this prison/industrial complex on other institutions in our society is such that if we only focus on ending mass incarceration, we may forget that our schools, particularly in schools in poor communities, poor communities of color reflect the impact of the prisonization of our society.

We inhabit a carceral society. We might talk about the U.S. as a prison nation, and that not only refers to the fact that we have the largest prison population and the largest number of prisons and the largest rate of incarceration. It not only refers to the fact that racism is largely what has driven that soaring prison population, but also the fact that carceral institutions determine the way our children are educated. It refers to the fact that the healthcare system is very much linked to this what you call "mass criminalization."

It seems to me that if we seriously want to move from mass incarceration, also from mass criminalization, we'll have to think about what it might mean to transform some of the other major institutions in our society.

bandele: Thank you for that, Angela. One of the questions that was actually e-mailed to me, was that, what does racism has to do with mass incarceration? I thought that you started talking about that. Maybe let's go back and think if we can understand the factors that even allowed us to become what we now know we are, which is the world's largest incarcerator. Maybe we can think about that a little bit. What were those factors at the very beginning?

Davis: Well, of course, the history of imprisonment in this country is a long and very complicated history. Often times one begins with the creation of the penitentiary in Auburn and New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One forgets that there were punishment systems operative during that time within slavery. As a matter of fact, in the aftermath of slavery, when one sees the convict lease system develop, when one sees the transformation of some of the huge slave plantations, into places where prisoners work, where convicts work, and of course Angola and others remain as witness to that connection between punishment and slavery and the mass incarceration in the 21st century.

I say this because one often forgets that slavery played a very important role in establishing the kind of punishment system that exists today. That means that the racism that we refer to is not simply the racism that is embedded in particular kinds of laws and of course the drug laws, as Drug Policy Alliance has made us aware, have been a large driver in the contemporary increase in the numbers of people in prison. But the institution itself is grounded in slavery.

It would seem to me that the recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement causes us to reflect on the connection between our lives in the second decade of the 21st century and the history of slavery, and particularly the failure to entirely abolish the consequences of slavery. We are still living with those consequences today. I like to think of racism also as a way of acknowledging the fact that we continue to be haunted by the institutions connected with slavery.

bandele: Let me ask you something, and sort of bringing it up to right now. I was having a conversation with a dear friend, Dr. Deborah Small, and she offered that she wasn't surprised by the current bipartisan push to end mass incarceration. She said that what we know to be true is that the Democrats and Republicans have always found common ground on the question of how to control not only black people but poor people and the most vulnerable members of our society, those who they thought were expendable.

Just as much as there was alignment around locking everybody up from twenty years ago and forty years ago, that now there's no surprise that perhaps we want to release people from prison. I wonder, I'm thinking about those days when we were sitting around a table talking about critical resistance and what to do, if we'd imagined this day would be here. Do you have any concerns about the way mass incarceration has taken center stage within a mainstream discourse?

Davis: Of course it's about time, and you know that for many, many years, for decades, as a matter of fact, we were talking in the 1970s about the problems that were posed, particularly by racial disparities in the numbers of people who were going to prison. It actually does not surprise me, particularly since the Right, the political Right has figured out a way of incorporating this issue into their call for smaller government. Now the mass incarceration as a project is the largest government-sponsored project outside of the military. When we consider the fact that huge numbers of resources are devoured by that, it makes sense that the political Right would argue that we need to figure out how to begin to dismantle aspects of this massive project.

Of course, their solutions are carceral solutions. Their solutions are more ways to control and surveil people without necessarily keeping them within prison institutions. That is not a solution, that is a part of the problem, and as a matter of fact, more electronic bracelets, more probation, more parole, all of that adds up to creating an even, a society that is even more determined by the carceral.

bandele: That's what I was thinking about, and what many of us were thinking about when we were thinking about the question of criminalization, that incarceration just doesn't take it far enough. Let me turn to our own movement and to some critique within it. Certainly when I first started here around 2005, it was something that I noticed and something that a lot of other people have raised, and that's the criticism of the nonviolent/violent frame that exists within the drug policy, the broader sort of drug policy reform movement. Many have noted that for some time we've also developed this sense of compassion for people who use drugs over the last several years, but we have little or no compassion for people who sell drugs.

That was made evident recently by Bill Clinton in his rant, and I wonder how we can begin to disrupt some of these dichotomies we have. We like the drug seller, I mean, we care about the drug user, but not the drug seller. We care about the nonviolent prisoner, but not the violent prisoner. How do we begin to tear down these walls? Or should we?

Davis: Absolutely. First of all, these notions are entirely constructed. What counts as violence? As a matter of fact, law enforcement people have an enormous amont of discretion in terms of charging someone with a violent, so-called violent or nonviolent offense. Say the difference between robbery and shoplifting, or whatever. At the same time, the distinction between the drug user and the drug seller is a totally artificial distinction. I like to think about the fact that it's women who are most affected by the drug laws. As a matter of fact, proportionately, more women are in prison for drug offenses, and that often has to do with the fact that, and this is true not only in the U.S., all over the world.

It often has to do with the fact that often male prisoners, a male defendant escapes imprisonment or they have their sentences reduced, because they're able to enter plea-bargaining deals, and they're able to provide information to the prosecution, and women are not. So we have a disproportionate number of women going to prison on drug selling charges, and often times it's only because of relationships with men. Often times it's not even because they have been actively involved in the process of drug selling.

There are so many circumstances that underlie what we often assume are very clear distinctions between the drug user and the drug seller, between the violent and the nonviolent defender, defendant.

bandele: I just so appreciate you taking it there, it's something that I've thought a lot about. I said often that one of the moments in doing this work that beyond took my breath away was sitting in a meeting with Candace Smith, and it was right after a number men had been, number of people had been pardoned or given clemency by Obama, and she said she looked for the names of just one of the women, just one woman she had been incarcerated with. She said, "One of the grandmothers." This breathtaking moment, made it so real, the fact that ... I wonder about that, we quickly quote the statistics, that 5 percent of the world's population lives in the U.S., 25 percent of the in-prison lives here.

Nobody really discusses the fact that 4 percent of all the women in the world live in the U.S. and yet 33 percent of all the incarcerated women live in the United States. I wonder if you can help us think through that particular harm. What does it mean that we have just exponentially removed our mothers and our grandmothers and our sisters from our communities? We've talked, and we should continue to talk about what it's meant that we've removed our fathers and our brothers, but what does it mean that we've lost our mothers in this way? What harm does that cause, especially black and brown communities?

Davis: What's interesting is that over the last decade or so, the size of the prison population in the world has increased by about 10 percent. We know of course that the U.S. incarcerates 25 percent of all of the people who are in prison in the world. As you pointed out, something like one-third of all of the women who are in prison on this planet are in the U.S. It's interesting that during the same period of time where the size of the world's prison population increased by 10 percent, the size of the women's prison population increased by over 40 percent.

This is a major trend, and I've always felt that regardless of the numbers, however, there are issues that we discover by looking very closely at the predicament of women in prison as we understand the relationship between intimate violence, of which so many women have experienced, and institutional violence or state violence. And issues that we've become aware of over the last period, especially since the campaign around CeCe McDonald in Minnesota, has been the question of trans women prisoners.

Of course trans women of color, trans-black women who cannot pass constitute the most criminalized population. Something like a half of all trans women end up in prison, for one reason or another. I think that we have to ask how does focusing on the increasing imprisonment of women, the fact that women constitute the fastest growing sector of the prison population, help us to understand aspects of the whole system, help us to more deeply and more complexly understand what is happening to male prisoners as well.

bandele:  Let me see how, if I can ask this correctly. If we move beyond what we know, sort of the incredible expansion of the numbers of people who are incarcerated on drug law offenses, or even drug-involved offenses, when possession of an illicit substance is not the top charge. Can you help us think about the ways in which the drug war, the language of the drug war, the ways in which it may have changed the policing, has extended America's culture of punishment?

Davis: Well, of course, that's a complicated issue, and the Drug Policy Alliance has done a lot of very important work bringing this to the fore, and Michelle Alexander's book, germinal book, Mass Incarceration and the New Jim Crow, helps us to think about the ways in which drug laws have made use of the ideological, one might say the ideological articulation of drug use and drug trafficking, with communities of color, with black communities, with Latino communities.

I always think it's important to think about this issue more broadly. In the U.S. we tend to focus on what's happening within this country, and somehow we often capitulate to the notion that the U.S. is the most important place in the world, and therefore we can only focus on what is happening domestically within our borders and understand the larger picture. I think that it is extremely important to recognize that the war on drugs has not only helped to fuel the prison population in this country, but it has an impact all over the world.

As I was saying before, I think it's especially important to look at the extent to which women, immigrant women in other countries, if one looks at Italy, for example, if one looks at the Netherlands, if one looks at France, and one goes into prisons there, the racial composition is not that different from the U.S. This is one of the things that surprised me early on visiting prisons in Australia and Sweden and the Netherlands. I discovered that there was this racial disparity that pretty much mirrored the racial disparities in the U.S., and at the same time, particularly among women, it was drug, it was the drug charges, in some instances, the use, the charges that women serve as mules from countries in South America, for example, to countries in Europe, the emergence in Italy of these very, a very stereotypical notion of black women as prostitutes.

I think that we have to broaden our perspective and this was one of the reasons why, as you know, early on, we thought about using the term "prison industrial complex," because it makes us think more broadly than U.S.-centric, U.S.-specific histories and situations.

asha: I think that the United States has a certain perspective on people throughout the world. Australia now incarcerates black people at a rate as high as was done in apartheid South Africa. Dr. Asale Ajani has done extraordinary work on what's happened with African women who are immigrating to Italy.

Davis: Exactly.

bandele: I don't want to get out of this conversation without asking about prison abolition, which remains controversial for a lot of people, and I'd like to hear you say why, if you do, believe it is the right frame for those of us who are involved in drug policy reform and working at the intersection of drug policy reform and criminal justice reform.

Davis: Well, interestingly, it's not nearly as controversial as it was twenty, thirty years ago. ... There was a time when you'd mention the notion of prison abolition and most people thought you were absolutely out of your mind. There was a time when there really was no vocabulary with which to have any public conversation about this. What's exciting to me is on the margins of the mainstream conventional focus on mass incarceration, there are expanding conversations about abolition, about the fact that this problem cannot be solved in one year, or even ten years.

It's not simply a problem that is confined to particular situations in prisons, or around the causes, the immediate causes that we think people are sent to prison. It's a larger social issue, so that abolition asks us not so much to think about just getting rid of prisons, even though that is what we want, but it asks us to think about the larger society. It asks us to think about the reasons why so many people go to prison, it asks us to think about the economic reasons. It asks us to think about educational reasons, it asks us to think about the connection between schools and prisons, so that it would make no sense to try to solve the problems of mass imprisonment, without looking at the ways in which the schools are affected by the carceral approach.

We also have to think about the health care system. The largest mental health facilities in the country are county jails. Rikers, Cook County and L.A. County Jail. We certainly have to think about how we address the question of health and mental health, and issues of intellectual disabilities, questions of disabilities more largely conceived, considering that historically, disabled people have also been subjected to incarceration. As a matter of fact, it is only during the more recent period where there's been a greater differentiation and rationalization of that process that people don't go to prison very specifically because they are disabled or because they are poor, because they are unemployed, but that used to be the case.

Abolition asks us to actually think about the possibility of a new society, which means that we have to ask how capitalism has affected our lives, how schools have been, the education that people receive in schools and colleges and universities has been completely commodified. Prison abolition is a window that allows us to look at the large problems in the society and to begin to imagine a new society, begin to imagine alternatives not only to the prison system but to capitalism.

bandele: I'm very aware that so many of us do this work literally standing in the blood of our children and those we have loved the most. We do this work while we're grieving, and even when those losses are not personal to us, Angela, I believe that there's an impact on all of our psyches watching so many of these public executions, often being played out in real time on every screen we have. Even when we don't want to look at it, it pops up in our twitter feed and on our Facebook feeds.

Freddie Gray being tossed into a van like he was a bag of trash. Walter Scott being shot in the back running for his life. Ramarley Graham, knowing that his grandmother and little brother watched him shot and cut down like, I don't even want to say like a dog, because we don't even do dogs like that, in his own bathroom. Then of course Eric Garner crying out, over and over again, "I can't breathe." I'm profoundly interested, and it's a central piece of my work, as I am about to take my fiftieth turn around the sun, unbelievably. What do we advocates and survivors begin to fold into our daily practice, to begin to heal? What do you do?

Davis: I think this is such an important question, so foundational to the work we do, because of course, all of us are traumatized. All of us have been deeply affected. In the very first place, people who have had direct experience with these institutions, but all of us. I recently attended the memorial service of Mondo we Langa, who spent forty-five years in prison for something he did not do. I shared some of his poetry with people who were there because it seemed to me that the poetry was a way of, was one of his ways of discovering how to feel in the context of an institution that continually brutalized and traumatized him. I think we have to find our own ways.

What I do? I've discovered over the years that it's impossible to continue to do this work without figuring out ways to engage in self-care. I have, I've been practicing yoga for a long time, I try to meditate every day, I try to incorporate music into my life. Rather than assume that we have to devote all of our available energy to organizing without thinking about the long-range impact of that, we have to develop holistic ways of organizing, we have to be conscious of our eating practices and the connection between our eating practices and the brutalization of animals on this plant.

As I grow older, I think I become more and more aware of the importance of holistic approaches to our struggles, because in a sense we have to try to represent what we think we are struggling for. If we end up achieving a particular goal, and all of our people are damaged and have not gone through processes of trying to heal, then we'll end up replicating precisely that against which we have been struggling. I think healing, restorative justice, transformative justice, these are deeply important strategies to incorporate as we move along the path of struggle.

bandele: Well, Angela, on that note, I'm going to take a very deep breath, a very deep breath. Because again we can go a little while without water, we can't go too long without a breath. And that was a profound, profound offering. Thank you for it.

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