In the early Seventies, she was the subject of a worldwide campaign for her release from prison in which even international celebrities like John Lennon had joined in.
Today, Angela Y. Davis, author, civil rights leader, feminist and poster girl of radicalism is one of the world’s most passionate crusaders for the abolition of prisons. On her first visit to India at the invitation of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies and Navayana Books, Davis spoke to Pamela Philipose in Delhi.
Pamela Philipose: You talk about the abolition of the prison system. But can such an idea ever become the social reality?
Angela Davis: To build such a society, we would need to, on the one hand, address some very real practical issues, even as we evolve a long term vision, on the other. So we have to make demands for education, not incarceration; we have to ensure that the funds that go into the construction of huge prison complexes go instead into sectors such as education and health care. Along with that very practical and strategic approach, there is the long-range vision of a society that no longer needs to rely on the existence of prisons for its security. And, of course, such a society would have to at least be moving in the direction of extricating itself from violence.
My focus is not just on the institution of the prison itself, but on socio-economic issues that are most often responsible for the majority of situations that lead people to prison. It is also about understanding the nature of capitalism in the 20th century, including global capitalism. The prison has become a model for addressing social and economic problems that need to be dealt with by other means.
The face of the 21st century’s so-called war against terror has increasingly become these institutions of incarceration, including military prisons where torture is committed. This is an even more persuasive reason why we have to at least create the possibility of imagining a world without prisons. In a sense, there is a utopian dimension to this campaign: It forces us to think what it will be like to live in a society that did not require prisons for a sense of security.
Angela Davis: Linked to the prison abolition campaign is the campaign for disarmament. But this effort to remove guns from the public has to be complemented by an effort to disarm the police. Studies have indicated that domestic violence in families of policemen, for example, or military personnel, is much greater and much more intensive.
I have a history that involves guns. My attitude to guns is very different today than what it was during that period. I grew up with guns because my father had to protect us all from the Ku Klux Klan, so guns were meant for self-defence. But now I would say I am totally in favour in making guns illegal – but also illegal in the hands of the police.
Angela Davis: I think, first of all, it indicates the impact of the dis-establishment of the welfare state. Many women have benefited from such programmes – it may have been a pittance that came their way but at least such programmes provided a safety net. Now that safety net no longer exists. Many women who you find in prison in the US, at least, are there for petty crimes like theft. They are also there for drug charges, because drugs, of course, have become the panacea. Many people who take street drugs have probably been very much influenced by the propaganda of pharmaceutical drugs. There are so many psychotropic drugs that are freely advertised on television in the US. They all have the catchline: ‘Ask your doctor about this…’ But what about those people who have no access to doctors?
Angel Davis: The campaign for the abolition of prisons has many different aspects to it. It requires us to think about the way in which we have been influenced by a particular kind of justice – that is retributive and is based on vengeance. We ask people to think about the way in which they have incorporated this impulse for vengeance in their own emotional, psychic structures, so that when a person does something that is harmful to another person, that person generally tries to think of how to get back. A campaign like this requires us to think about other kinds of justice, including restorative justice.
History has demonstrated that as we conduct struggles for justice and equality, we become even more conscious of forms of repression and injustice that we had not recognised earlier, that we could not have recognised earlier. How did the women’s movement emerge? How did our understanding of gender emerge? How did our understanding that gender need not be binary emerge? How did we become aware of the need to assert the rights of disabled people? So this is, in a sense, is an infinite process. We cannot even imagine today what the agenda of justice might be a hundred years from now.