Dismantling California’s Division of Juvenile Justice

I get so caught up in what’s going on with our state prisons (in AZ) that I had no idea this was going on right now in California.  Governor Brewer has been wanting to dismantle the AZ Department of Juvenile Corrections and privatize more services, too. I’m all for abolishing the entire criminal justice system and staring anew, but I don’t think we have the same motives or ultimate vision in mind. This isn’t prison abolition so much as it’s shifting youth around the system to improve “efficiencies”.

I think the worry that youth will be tried as adults more often – absent state prisons for children – is legitimate, but can be addressed with legislation abolishing or severely curtailing juvenile transfer laws. We already know that youth tried as adults are more, not less likely, to re-offend, and we have an idea of what types of evidence-based practice can reduce juvenile delinquency and adult crime, and consequently further victimization…that’s good for all involved.

We’ll try to stay on top of this, now…



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Fight ahead over bold California move to close state-run youth prisons
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
Susan Ferriss January 28, 2012

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity
 
California, often a trendsetter, could make history if it approves Gov. Jerry Brown’s bid to close all state-run youth prisons and eliminate its state Division of Juvenile Justice.

Much depends, though, on whether the state’s politically influential prison guards, probation officers and district attorneys can be convinced — or forced by legislators — to agree to Brown’s proposal. That won’t be an easy sell, due to both public-safety arguments and sure-to-surface haggling over just who pays to house juvenile offenders.

Vowing to restructure government more efficiently, Brown, a Democrat, wants to close the last three of 11 youth prisons that have long been attacked by critics as “expensive failures.” If the state phases out the last three of its aging detention centers, all future young offenders would be held, schooled and treated by California’s 58 counties.

This is the second time since taking office last year that Brown has proposed closing the state juvenile division, which is part of its corrections system. The division’s responsibility has already been slashed dramatically from 10,000 wards in the mid-1990s to about 1,100 in state custody today. Their numbers may be few, but the cost for keeping those youth in state custody runs about $200,000-a-year for every ward.

A host of agendas

The drop in numbers of youths in state custody is due in part to a decline in juvenile crime in California, but also to state legislation in 2007 that blocked counties from sending nonviolent youth offenders to state-run detention centers.

It was a move driven, some argue, largely by California’s massive budget deficits and the desire to lower ballooning incarceration costs. But the decision also dovetailed with an emerging national philosophy favoring locally-based rehabilitation programs over state-run facilities that have been plagued with records of neglect, danger and sexual abuse.

Behind the policy debate: never-ending negotiations over money. The 2007 initiative included millions in state money to counties to devise and provide more effective treatment closer to wards’ home areas and families. Last year, after wrangling with Brown, legislators approved a deal requiring counties to begin paying $125,000 for each ward they sent to the state, if the state’s revenues didn’t improve.

Sure enough, revenues didn’t improve, and now the counties are balking at having to pay the $125,000 per ward they owe. And Brown isn’t collecting. Instead he has resurrected his idea to shut down the state facilities, and give counties even less than he offered before.

Many, but not all, juvenile justice reformers nationwide are cheering Brown’s announcement this month.
“The same phenomenon is happening on the two coasts,” said Bart Lubow, director of programs for high-risk youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He noted that New York State, too, is shifting care for juveniles more to local custody for cost-control and quality reasons.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal this year includes a deal for New York City to keep most of its offenders locally. Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained in 2010 that it cost New York City $62 million in 2009 to satisfy a requirement that it pay half the state’s costs for jailing, on daily average, fewer than 600 youth offenders from the city.

The state-run jails were far from New York City wards’ families, the mayor argued, and had dubious records, like California’s, with recidivism rates of about 80 percent.

Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation said that if Brown is able to pull off the feat of closing all state facilities, other states will have a model to follow. “California is at the leading edge of a national trend,” he said, “to abandon centralized facilities that are scandal-prone and ineffective.”

What’s best for juvenile offenders?

As it was last year, Brown’s idea is embedded in his proposed 2012-13 state budget announced this month. It will be hashed over publicly and privately before legislators make a decision by a June 15 deadline.

Most legislators in California are Democrats, as Brown is, but they are always under pressure not to appear soft on crime. They are also mindful that California’s correctional workers’ union is a big player in state politics and a heavy donor to campaigns.

This time, given that only three state juvenile facilities remain, legislators are perhaps under more pressure not to overburden counties, which are already coping with fallout from last year’s budget deal.

That deal was considered historic because after years of waffling, legislators authorized a significant shift of certain low-level adult felons to county responsibility. The aim was to cut state costs and satisfy federal court orders to clear California’s overcrowded prisons.

Mark Varela, legislative chairman for the Chief Probation Officers of California, said his group continues to oppose closing the last three state juvenile detention centers, although, individually, there are some probation chiefs in California who favor it and say they are ready.

Varela said opponents’ “concern is that the youth in DJJ [the Division of Juvenile Justice] represent offenders with a high degree of sophistication,“ who could have a “negative impact” on lower-level offenders who might not easily be separated from them in local facilities.

By mixing the populations, Varela said, the more violent youths, some of them incarcerated for murder or sex offenses, could endanger or influence others and undermine their progress.

Hardball in Sacramento

District attorneys, too, are expected to fight Brown’s proposal; indeed, the California District Attorneys Association has already shown it can play hardball on the issue.

In hearings and official letters last year, the association argued that if California youth prisons were no longer on option, it was “inevitable” that for public safety, prosecutors would likely try many more juveniles as adults and send them to adult state prison. District attorneys also argued that if counties had to pay the state $125,000 per ward, more youths would also likely be prosecuted as adults.

Books Not Bars, a prison rights group that backs Brown’s proposal, is preparing to counter the prosecutors’ threat.

The group has crafted a draft bill designed to force counties to pay for minors they send to state prison, Jennifer Kim, a Books Not Bars leader, told the Center for Public Integrity. “We are currently shopping it around the Legislature,” Kim said.

Kim said the bill calls for counties to pay the state the going adult rate — about $52,500 a year — for each minor put in adult prison based on the discretion of a prosecutor.

That’s not as much as the $200,000 a year it costs the state for each ward in existing youth prisons, Kim said. But she said it could help dissuade counties from trying to avoid keeping young offenders by putting them in adult prison.

Kim said that while legislators might be vulnerable to soft-on-crime accusations, they also are under fire after years of chopping education severely, closing parks and stripping down other services. They need to justify, Kim said, spending millions on a system that fails to reform most of its wards, and has a record of documented abuses.

“California could be its own country,” Kim said. “It’s so big. And we can’t figure out how to handle about 1,000 kids? That’s smaller than the high school I went to.”

Like the district attorneys association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is also opposed to Brown’s idea.

“We’re very disappointed with the proposal. We feel it is an immense disservice to youth offenders,” JeVaughn Baker, spokesman for the correctional workers’ union, told the Center for Public Integrity.

Baker said that instead of a complete closure, the union favors trying to reduce costs per ward, and continuing improvements at the state-run juvenile prisons, which have been operating for a number of years under court decree to improve conditions.

However, Baker said, the union also is willing to talk about a compromise and “wants to be part of the solution.” A meeting is planned in mid-February among union representatives to discuss more steps toward continuing reforms to the state facilities, he said.

The correctional workers’ union contributed heavily to Brown’s election, and continues to have a seat at the table when it comes to prison reforms. But with California reeling from waves of budget cuts, it doesn’t have the clout it used to at the state Capitol and has had to accept changes that cut jobs, said Barry Krisberg, an expert on incarceration policy at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.

Krisberg, who is also an appointed monitor reporting on improvements at state-run youth facilities, predicted a tough sell for Brown’s proposal at the Capitol. “I’m hearing there is not much enthusiasm in the Legislature for this,” he said.

Krisberg also has his own doubts that the state government should completely phase out its ability to take custody of minors.

He fears that some counties aren’t bluffing when they argue that they are not suited to handle high-level young offenders.

Krisberg said a total closure “would be the most radical juvenile justice reform in history.” He’d rather see the division shifted to the state’s Department of Education, possibly, and out of the prison system.

He also noted that county systems for youth offenders are not scandal-free. The Los Angeles County Probation Department is under federal order to rein in use of force, including pepper spray, as well as neglect of wards with mental health problems and suicidal tendencies.

In December, a federal report found that the Los Angeles probation department still fell short of improvements it was ordered to make.

Krisberg said that in the end, he’d prefer to see California keep a few hundred beds for juveniles at the state level and enact strong policies and provide adequate funding for monitoring and improving local treatment.
Because many high-level wards are adults by the time they’ve served their sentences, what they critically need, Krisberg said, is help from the state with post-incarceration re-entry to society, including housing, access to mental-health medication and job placement.

Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan group in San Francisco, is a friend of Krisberg, but differs with him on this issue, arguing for a shutdown of state facilities that he says are relics of a failed rehabilitation model.

Besides, Macallair said, the majority of the state’s wards come from only about a dozen counties, out of 58, that have grown reliant on the state, and need to be pushed to develop a better infrastructure locally for rehabilitation. His group’s research, Macallair said, shows that despite claims to the contrary, California’s counties have enough room and the ability to appropriately separate juveniles.

Meanwhile, he said, “you’ve got a state system that’s really hanging by a thumbnail.”

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit organization focused on investigative journalism.

Ordinary People’s Society: The Movement Grows.

Arizona Department of Corrections
Phoenix. February 23, 2011.

Blessings to all our friends gathering in Alabama this week, from the resistance in The Deep South of the New West…

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Former Prisoners Meet to Form a Movement

SF Bay View FEB 18, 2011

On Feb. 28-March 2, 2011, a group of activists who have first-hand experience regarding inhumanities of the American prison industrial complex will convene in Alabama to lay the groundwork for a national civil rights movement. This conference of affected peoples grows out of broader momentum over the past decade, with many formerly incarcerated activists unifying to establish their own conference, for their own agenda, … as part of their own movement. 

 
“What you are seeing now in Georgia,” says Pastor Kenny Glasgow of The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS), “is a response to inhumane prison conditions and thousands of people’s sense of hopelessness.” He is referring to the Dec. 9 prison labor stoppage across the Georgia system, the largest prisoner protest in American history. “It has become so systematic,” he says, “the prison industry has managed to unite us.” Over 3,000 people have signed a solidarity petition in support of the prisoners.

America, with 5 percent of the planet’s population, holds 25 percent of the prisoners. The 2.3 million exist in a gulag of state, federal and for-profit prisons, while nearly 10 million people currently live under some manner of government supervision. This would be the eighth largest state in the nation. It is unknown exactly how many millions have a criminal record, or are family of those who have once been inside the prison industrial complex, but some estimates exceed 10 million released prisoners in America and 50 million with criminal records.

TOPS Youth is only one of the many activities of The Ordinary People’s Society in Dothan, Alabama. Others are the Prodigal Child Project, Restoring the Family, Momma Tina’s Soup Kitchen and maintaining the TOPS complex and church. TOPS has earned 501c (3) and 501c (4) nonprofit status.

Linda Evans, co-founder of All of Us or None, puts this gathering in a historical perspective: “Holding the first of two national gatherings at the epicenter of the civil rights struggle is a symbolic action of great power, invoking similar moments such as Stonewall, the Great Grape Boycott, and the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. The rights of prisoners, including those who were there and those who are targeted to go there, need all of us to share our wisdom and unite our struggle.” Events will occur in Montgomery, Dothan and Selma, including a backwards march over Edmund Pettis Bridge. 

 
The conference is being organized by a Steering Committee consisting of Malik Aziz (Philadelphia), Susan Burton (Los Angeles), Pastor Kenny Glasgow (Dothan, Alabama), Arthur League, Aaliyah Muhammed and Dorsey Nunn (San Francisco/Oakland), Bruce Reilly (Providence) and Tina Reynolds (New York). Participants will be putting aside their local struggles in order to develop a common platform regarding restoration of civil rights, stopping prison expansion, elimination of excessive punishments and protecting the dignity of family members. The Steering Committee will organize dozens of others to convene in Alabama.

Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, shown here in his church, was a leading member of the team that went into Georgia prisons and met with prison officials following the sit-down strike by thousands of prisoners across the state that started Dec. 9. They followed up on prisoners’ demands, investigated reports of brutal reprisals and sought information on 37 prisoners missing since the strike and labeled as organizers.

We need donations, frequent flyer miles, motel rooms or any help you can give those who may not be able to come on their own

The Alabama Convention will be the beginning for activating a movement. Next stop: Los Angeles, on Nov. 1, 2011. Allies and supporters should send donations, via paypal, at www.theordinarypeoplesociety.com or by mail to: TOPS, 403 W. Powell Street, Dothan, AL 36303, to assist with the expenses of the event. People can also get involved, as participants or supporters, by supporting civil rights of the formerly incarcerated. A political agenda will be established by a collaborative process and provide opportunity for strategic support. 

This national conference is supported by All of Us or None, World Conference of Mayors, Drug Policy Alliance, The Ordinary People Society, Equal Justice Initiative, Rev. Al Sampson, Dr. C.T. Vivian, Prodigal Child Project, National Justice Coalition, Rev. Al Sharpton, New Bottom Line, National Second Chance Council, National Exhoodus Council, A New Way of Life, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH), Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), MN Second Chance Coalition and others.

Those seeking more information should contact Dorsey Nunn at dorsey@prisonerswithchildren.org or (415) 516-9599 or Pastor Kenny Glasgow, alabamaalliance@yahoo.com or (334) 791-2433. Visit TOPS on the web at www.wearetops.org, www.theordinarypeoplesociety.com, wearetops.blogspot.com or www.ordinarypeoplenews.com.

World Health Day at The Palestinian Wall…

LIFE IN PALESTINE.
2010.

My apologies to all for running out so abruptly on that last post, suggesting that crashing a MEChA meeting or supporting an action for Palestinians here and there constitutes “cross-movement organizing.”

 
It does not.

 

By my account, cross-movement organizing is deliberate engagement of both leadership and the people of other movements – or other branches of the global movement for universal liberation (which encompasses aspects of environmental and animal rights activists’ agendas as well) – as strategic allies in campaigns, actions, messaging, etc. It’s a process of recognizing and redefining common ground (and common opposition), working out areas of conflict between us, and building solidarity that extends beyond specific issues or actions to a general sharing of human, technological, and economic resources.

For example, “Jobs With Justice” has a campaign that encourages us to pledge that “I’ll be there” at least 5 times in the next year for someone else’s action – to fight for their health care, housing, or liberation, knowing theirs is intricately tied to mine. I don’t know how it’s working in action, but it’s a great concept.




 
My ASU comrade Emmanuel Gallardo, did an awesome job of cross-movement organizing with the “ASU Social Justice Coalition” a few years ago, which had members from many different student groups involved.

Boy, did we give President Crow some grief.

It’s the most diverse and active student organization I’ve been a part of, and while it was extremely ambitious and demanding, it was also quite inspiring. I learned a lot from Eman’s approach – he already had connections with every Latino organization on campus, but bent over backwards to connect with everyone else – from the NAACP and nAfrican American Men at ASU, to the Greens, to the LGBTQ community – and get us all to share our energy and resources – including bodies at rallies and actions.

So, what I ‘ve been doing is using the expression “cross-movement organizing” loosely to describe my clumsy efforts to establish relationships with people outside my immediate safety zone right now for the purpose of building explicit support for prison abolition. My recent connections include PUENTE, CODE Pink, the Brown Berets de Aztlan, the Liver Foundation, some Anarchafeminists, MEChA and these folks, the Students for Justice in Palestine.

I think it’s all connected anyway, of course – capitalism, war, racism, colonialism, prisons. Compulsory labor and the use of our bodies as soldiers, slaves, consumers or merchandise via coercion, co-optation, and criminalization (or the threat of it) still continues to this day. But the organizing around those principles, the personal connections, all that needs to be deliberate, consistent, prolonged, authentic.

 
I’m deliberate and authentic, but I’m also sporadic on the bigger scale, and may crash and burn tomorrow. I live on my own schedule, and am distracted by several different drummers in my head, so to speak. I’m something of a shy person, actually, unless I’m really all fired up about something or writing. I’m not too socially ept in many ways, so this isn’t all just coming naturally to me. I think I’m a little frayed from too many years of drugs and a few too many volts through my brain. Or maybe I’m just still rough around the edges, as they say.

 
In any event, cross-movement organizing is what I’m working on, but not with grace or ease. Take your lessons on that from the Black Panthers, et al – and keep in mind that the only thing that changed really about COINTELPRO is the language and the law: it’s still happening. This cross-movement stuff really threatens them. That’s why the Anti-Arpaio rally in January got disrupted by the cops…

Need not generate more bad vibes there, today, though. This post is really about the Wall. I was so stunned when it came into view on Hayden Lawn Wednesday (World Health Day) that I just put all my stuff down and took it in. I started photographing when I moved in closer, then came upon these words of a child….

I began to weep, right there, in the middle of the lawn with my tripod and camera in hand, in the shadow of this tower of heartrending scrawl, the narrative of perpetual occupation and war punctuated by photographs of dead and dying kids.

One cannot walk away from that wall and not be changed by the sudden visage of the blood we have on our hands. That has left me somewhat speechless; the magnitude of the prison industrial complex and how intricately tied it is to the perpetuation of war and violence. For now, the rest of the story of my afternoon will tell itself in pictures. As I catch back up with my life, I’ll put in a link in the margin to the Students for Justice in Palestine who set this up. hey apparently got the display from a group in California.

Thanks, by the way, to all of you who signed the solidarity card for Mississippi youth and the Scott Sisters.

Tune into NPR for a piece on the supplies finally reaching the Gaza Strip today for the first time in years – the world’s largest open-air prison. Good for the Black Market – of course there is violence and inequality there, too, but at least it’s a manifestation of the Resistance. Those people have done what they’ve needed to in order to survive another generation of genocidal policies. The economy is still so decimated, though. 

What does Israel hope to achieve by continuing to terrorize and massacre their neighbors?

What do we hope to accomplish that way, for that matter?

Davis: The Challenges of Prison Abolition

Celebrate the International Observation of the Anniversary
of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

ABOLISH THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!!

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this is a great article from a few years back, posted in History is a Weapon, with Angela Davis making the connections between the institution of slavery and the prison industrial complex of today.

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The Challenge of Prison Abolition:

A conversation between Angela Y. Davis and Dylan Rodriguez

2004

History is a weapon

Angela Y. Davis teaches in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California (215 Oakes College, Santa Cruz, CA 95060), and has been actively involved in prison-related campaigns since the events that led to her own incarceration in 1970. Dylan Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor at University of California – Riverside and was involved in the formation of Critical Resistance. Rodriguez’s first book, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the Formation of the U.S. Prison Regime will be published in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Press.

Dylan: Your emergence as a radical prison activist was deeply influenced by your experience as a prisoner. Could you talk a bit about how imprisonment affected your political formation, and the impact that it had on your eventual identification as prison abolitionists?

Angela: The time I spent in jail was both an outcome of my work on prison issues and a profound influence on my subsequent trajectory as a prison activist. When I was arrested in the summer of 1970 in connection with my involvement in the campaign to free George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, I was one of many activists who had been previously active in defense movements. In editing the anthology, If They Come in the Morning (1971) while I was in jail, Bettina Aptheker and I attempted to draw upon the organizing and legal experiences associated with a vast number of contemporary campaigns to free political prisoners. The most important lessons emanating from those campaigns, we thought, demonstrated the need to examine the overall role of the prison system, especially its class and racial character.

There was a relationship, as George Jackson had insisted, between the rising numbers of political prisoners and the imprisonment of increasing numbers of poor people of color. If prison was the state-sanctioned destination for activists such as myself, it was also used as a surrogate solution to social problems associated with poverty and racism. Although imprisonment was equated with rehabilitation in the dominant discourse at that time, it was obvious to us that its primary purpose was repression.


Along with other radical activists of that era, we thus began to explore what it might mean to combine our call for the freedom of political prisoners with an embryonic call for the abolition of prisons. Of course we had not yet thought through all of the implications of such a position, but today it seems that what was viewed at that time as political naivete, the un-theorized and utopian impulses of young people trying to be revolutionary, foreshadowed what was to become, at the turn of the century, the important project of critically examining the political economy of a prison system, whose unrestrained growth urgently needs to be reversed.

Dylan: What interests me is the manner in which your trial — and the rather widespread social movement that enveloped it, along with other political trials — enabled a wide variety of activists to articulate a radical critique of U.S. jurisprudence and imprisonment. The strategic framing of yours and others’ individual political biographies within a broader set of social and historical forces — state violence, racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, the growth and transformation of U.S. capitalism — disrupted the logic of the criminal justice apparatus in a fundamental way. Turning attention away from conventional notions of “crime” as isolated, individual instances of misbehavior necessitated a basic questioning of the conditions that cast “criminality” as a convenient political rationale for the warehousing of large numbers of poor, disenfranchised, and displaced black people and other people of color.

Many activists are now referring to imprisonment as a new form of slavery, refocusing attention on the historical function of the 13th Amendment in reconstructing enslavement as a punishment reserved for those “duly convicted.” Yet, when we look more closely at the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, the language of enslavement fails to the extent that it relies on the category of forced labor as its basic premise. People frequently forget that the majority of imprisoned people are not workers, and that work is itself made available only as a “privilege” for the most favored prisoners.

The logic of the prison-industrial complex is closer to what you, George Jackson, and others were forecasting back then as mass containment, the effective elimination of large numbers of (poor, black) people from the realm of civil society. Yet, the current social impact of the prison-industrial complex must have been virtually unfathomable 30 years ago. One could make the argument that the growth of this massive structure has met or exceeded the most ominous forecasts of people who, at that time, could barely have imagined that at the turn of the century two million people would be encased in a prison regime that is far more sophisticated and repressive than it was at the onset of Nixon’s presidency, when about 150,000 people were imprisoned nationally in decrepit, overcrowded buildings.


So in a sense, your response to the first question echoes the essential truth of what was being dismissed, in your words, as the paranoid “political naivete” of young radical activists in the early 1970s. I think we might even consider the formation of prison abolitionism as a logical response to this new human warehousing strategy. In this vein, could you give a basic summary of the fundamental principles underlying the contemporary prison abolitionist movement?

Angela: First of all, I must say that I would hesitate to characterize the contemporary prison abolition movement as a homogeneous and united international effort to displace the institution of the prison. For example, the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), which periodically brings scholars and activists together from Europe, South America, Australia, Africa, and North America, reveals the varied nature of this movement. Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner and longtime activist, has a longer history of involvement with ICOPA than I do since he attended the conference in New Zealand three years ago. My first direct contact with ICOPA was this past May, when I attended the Toronto gathering.

Dylan: Was there anything about ICOPA that particularly impressed you?

Angela: The ICOPA conference in Toronto revealed some of the major strengths and weaknesses of the abolitionist movement. First of all, despite the rather homogenous character of their circle, they have managed to keep the notion of abolitionism alive precisely at a time when developing radical alternatives to the prison-industrial complex is becoming a necessity. That is to say, abolitionism should not now be considered an unrealizable utopian dream, but rather the only possible way to halt the further transnational development of prison industries.


That ICOPA claims supporters in Europe and Latin America is an indication of what is possible. However, the racial homogeneity of ICOPA, and the related failure to incorporate an analysis of race into the theoretical framework of their version of abolitionism, is a major weakness. The conference demonstrated that while faith-based approaches to the abolition of penal systems can be quite powerful, organizing strategies must go much further. We need to develop and popularize the kinds of analyses that explain why people of color predominate in prison populations throughout the world and how this structural racism is linked to the globalization of capital.

Dylan: Yes, I found that the political vision of ICOPA was extraordinarily limited, especially considering its professed commitment to a more radical abolitionist analysis and program. This undoubtedly had a lot to do with the underlying racism of the organization itself, which was reflected in the language of some of the conference resolutions: “We support all transformative measures which enable us to live better in community with those we as a society find most difficult, and most consistently marginalize or exclude” (emphasis added)1.


A major figure in ICOPA even accused a small group of people of color in attendance of being “racist” when they attempted to constructively criticize the overwhelming white homogeneity of the conference and the need for creative strategies to engage communities of color in such an important political discussion. Several black student-activists I met at ICOPA told me how alienated they felt at the conference, especially when they realized that the ICOPA organizers had never attempted to contact the Toronto-based organizations with which these student-activists were working: a major black anti-police-brutality coalition, a black prisoner support organization, etc.


So I certainly share your frustrations with ICOPA. At the same time, I find myself wondering how a new political formation of prison abolitionism can form in such a reactionary national and global climate. You have been involved with a variety of prison movements for the last 30 years, so maybe you can help me out. How do you think about this new political challenge within a broader historical perspective?

Angela: There are multiple histories of prison abolition. The Scandinavian scholar/activist Thomas Mathieson first published his germinal text, The Politics of Abolition, in 1974, when activist movements were calling for the disestablishment of prisons — in the aftermath of the Attica Rebellion and prison uprisings throughout Europe. He was concerned with transforming prison reform movements into more radical movements to abolish prisons as the major institutions of punishment.


There was a pattern of decarceration in the Netherlands until the mid-1980s, which seemed to establish the Dutch system as a model prison system, and the later rise in prison construction and the expansion of the incarcerated population has served to stimulate abolitionist ideas. Criminologist Willem de Haan published a book in 1990 entitled The Politics of Redress: Crime, Punishment, and Penal Abolition.



One of the most interesting texts, from the point of view of U.S. activist history is Fay Honey Knopp’s volume Instead of Prison: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists, which was published in 1976, with funding from the American Friends. This handbook points out the contradictory relationship between imprisonment and an “enlightened, free society.” Prison abolition, like the abolition of slavery, is a long-range goal and the handbook argues that an abolitionist approach requires an analysis of “crime” that links it with social structures, as opposed to individual pathology, as well as “anticrime” strategies that focus on the provision of social resources.


Of course, there are many versions of prison abolitionism — including those that propose to abolish punishment altogether and replace it with reconciliatory responses to criminal acts. In my opinion, the most powerful relevance of abolitionist theory and practice today resides in the fact that without a radical position vis-a-vis the rapidly expanding prison system, prison architecture, prison surveillance, and prison system corporatization, prison culture, with all its racist and totalitarian implications, will continue not only to claim ever increasing numbers of people of color, but also to shape social relations more generally in our society.


Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.

Dylan: I think you make a subtle but important point here: prison and penal abolition imply an analysis of society that illuminates the repressive logic, as well as the fascistic historical trajectory, of the prison’s growth as a social and industrial institution. Theoretically and politically, this “radical position,” as you call it, introduces a new set of questions that does not necessarily advocate a pragmatic “alternative” or a concrete and immediate “solution” to what currently exists. In fact, I think this is an entirely appropriate position to assume when dealing with a policing and jurisprudence system that inherently disallows the asking of such fundamental questions as: Why are some lives considered more disposable than others under the weight of police policy and criminal law?


How have we arrived at a place where killing is valorized and defended when it is organized by the state — I’m thinking about the street lynchings of Diallo and Dorismond in New York City, the bombing of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in 1985, the ongoing bombing of Iraqi civilians by the United States — yet viciously avenged (by the state) when committed by isolated individuals? Why have we come to associate community safety and personal security with the degree to which the state exercises violence through policing and criminal justice?


You’ve written elsewhere that the primary challenge for penal abolitionists in the United States is to construct a political language and theoretical discourse that disarticulates crime from punishment. In a sense, this implies a principled refusal to pander to the typically pragmatist impulse to demand absolute answers and solutions right now to a problem that has deep roots in the social formation of the United States since the 1960s. I think your open-ended conception of prison abolition also allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the prison-industrial complex as a set of institutional and political relationships that extend well beyond the walls of the prison proper.


So in a sense, prison abolition is itself a broader critique of society. This brings me to the next question: What are the most crucial distinctions between the political commitments and agendas of prison reformists and those of prison abolitionists?

Angela: The seemingly unbreakable link between prison reform and prison development — referred to by Foucault in his analysis of prison history — has created a situation in which progress in prison reform has tended to render the prison more impermeable to change and has resulted in bigger, and what are considered “better,” prisons.


The most difficult question for advocates of prison abolition is how to establish a balance between reforms that are clearly necessary to safeguard the lives of prisoners and those strategies designed to promote the eventual abolition of prisons as the dominant mode of punishment. In other words, I do not think that there is a strict dividing line between reform and abolition.


For example, it would be utterly absurd for a radical prison activist to refuse to support the demand for better health care inside Valley State, California’s largest women’s prison, under the pretext that such reforms would make the prison a more viable institution. Demands for improved health care, including protection from sexual abuse and challenges to the myriad ways in which prisons violate prisoners’ human rights, can be integrated into an abolitionist context that elaborates specific decarceration strategies and helps to develop a popular discourse on the need to shift resources from punishment to education, housing, health care, and other public resources and services.


Dylan: Speaking of developing a popular discourse, the Critical Resistance gathering in September 1998 seemed to pull together an incredibly wide array of prison activists — cultural workers, prisoner support and legal advocates, former prisoners, radical teachers, all kinds of researchers, progressive policy scholars and criminologists, and many others.


Although you were quite clear in the conference’s opening plenary session that the purpose of Critical Resistance was to encourage people to imagine radical strategies for a sustained prison abolition campaign, it was clear to me that only a few people took this dimension of the conference seriously. That is, it seemed convenient for people to rejoice at the unprecedented level of participation in this presumably “radical” prison activist gathering, but the level of analysis and political discussion generally failed to embrace the creative challenge of formulating new ways to link existing activism to a larger abolitionist agenda. People were generally more interested in developing an analysis of the prison-industrial complex that incorporated the local work that they were involved in, which I think is an important practical connection to make.


At the same time, I think there is an inherent danger in conflating militant reform and human rights strategies with the underlying logic of anti-prison radicalism, which conceives of the ultimate eradication of the prison as a site of state violence and social repression. What is required, at least in part, is a new vernacular that enables this kind of political dream. How does prison abolition necessitate new political language, teachings, and organizing strategies? How could these strategies help to educate and organize people inside and outside the prison for abolition?

Angela: In order to imagine a world without prisons — or at least a social landscape no longer dominated by the prison — a new popular vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned.


Thus, one of the first challenges is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance. In the university, the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of prison studies can help to trouble the prevailing criminology discourses that shape public policy as well as popular ideas about the permanence of prisons. At the high school level, new curricula can also be developed that encourage critical thinking about the role of punishment. Community organizations can also play a role in urging people to link their demands for better schools, for example, to a reduction of prison spending.

Dylan: Your last comment suggests that we need to rupture the ideological structures embodied by the rise of the prison-industrial complex. How does prison abolition force us to rethink common assumptions about jurisprudence, in particular “criminal justice?”

Angela: Since the invention of the prison as punishment in Western society during the late 1700s, criminal justice systems have so thoroughly depended on imprisonment that we have lost the ability to imagine other ways to solve the problem of “crime.” One of the interesting contributions of prison abolitionists has been to propose other paradigms of punishment or to suggest that we need to extricate ourselves from the assumption that punishment must be a necessary response to all violations of the law.


Reconciliatory or restorative justice, for example, is presented by some abolitionists as an approach that has proved successful in non-Western societies — Native American societies, for example — and that can be tailored for use in urban contexts in cases that involve property and other offenses. The underlying idea is that in many cases, the reconciliation of offender and victim (including monetary compensation to the victim) is a much more progressive vision of justice than the social exile of the offender. This is only one example — the point is that we will not be free to imagine other ways of addressing crime as long as we see the prison as a permanent fixture for dealing with all or most violations of the law.

http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/davisinterview.html

Davis: The Challenges of Prison Abolition

Celebrate the International Observation of the Anniversary of
the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

ABOLISH THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!!
——————–

this is a great article from a few years back, posted in History is a Weapon, with Angela Davis making the connections between the institution of slavery and the prison industrial complex of today.

——————-

The Challenge of Prison Abolition:

A conversation between Angela Y. Davis and Dylan Rodriguez

2004

History is a weapon

Angela Y. Davis teaches in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California (215 Oakes College, Santa Cruz, CA 95060), and has been actively involved in prison-related campaigns since the events that led to her own incarceration in 1970. Dylan Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor at University of California – Riverside and was involved in the formation of Critical Resistance. Rodriguez’s first book, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the Formation of the U.S. Prison Regime will be published in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Press.

Dylan: Your emergence as a radical prison activist was deeply influenced by your experience as a prisoner. Could you talk a bit about how imprisonment affected your political formation, and the impact that it had on your eventual identification as prison abolitionists?

Angela: The time I spent in jail was both an outcome of my work on prison issues and a profound influence on my subsequent trajectory as a prison activist. When I was arrested in the summer of 1970 in connection with my involvement in the campaign to free George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, I was one of many activists who had been previously active in defense movements. In editing the anthology, If They Come in the Morning (1971) while I was in jail, Bettina Aptheker and I attempted to draw upon the organizing and legal experiences associated with a vast number of contemporary campaigns to free political prisoners. The most important lessons emanating from those campaigns, we thought, demonstrated the need to examine the overall role of the prison system, especially its class and racial character.

There was a relationship, as George Jackson had insisted, between the rising numbers of political prisoners and the imprisonment of increasing numbers of poor people of color. If prison was the state-sanctioned destination for activists such as myself, it was also used as a surrogate solution to social problems associated with poverty and racism. Although imprisonment was equated with rehabilitation in the dominant discourse at that time, it was obvious to us that its primary purpose was repression. Along with other radical activists of that era, we thus began to explore what it might mean to combine our call for the freedom of political prisoners with an embryonic call for the abolition of prisons. Of course we had not yet thought through all of the implications of such a position, but today it seems that what was viewed at that time as political naivete, the un-theorized and utopian impulses of young people trying to be revolutionary, foreshadowed what was to become, at the turn of the century, the important project of critically examining the political economy of a prison system, whose unrestrained growth urgently needs to be reversed.

Dylan: What interests me is the manner in which your trial — and the rather widespread social movement that enveloped it, along with other political trials — enabled a wide variety of activists to articulate a radical critique of U.S. jurisprudence and imprisonment. The strategic framing of yours and others’ individual political biographies within a broader set of social and historical forces — state violence, racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, the growth and transformation of U.S. capitalism — disrupted the logic of the criminal justice apparatus in a fundamental way. Turning attention away from conventional notions of “crime” as isolated, individual instances of misbehavior necessitated a basic questioning of the conditions that cast “criminality” as a convenient political rationale for the warehousing of large numbers of poor, disenfranchised, and displaced black people and other people of color.

Many activists are now referring to imprisonment as a new form of slavery, refocusing attention on the historical function of the 13th Amendment in reconstructing enslavement as a punishment reserved for those “duly convicted.” Yet, when we look more closely at the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, the language of enslavement fails to the extent that it relies on the category of forced labor as its basic premise. People frequently forget that the majority of imprisoned people are not workers, and that work is itself made available only as a “privilege” for the most favored prisoners.

The logic of the prison-industrial complex is closer to what you, George Jackson, and others were forecasting back then as mass containment, the effective elimination of large numbers of (poor, black) people from the realm of civil society. Yet, the current social impact of the prison-industrial complex must have been virtually unfathomable 30 years ago. One could make the argument that the growth of this massive structure has met or exceeded the most ominous forecasts of people who, at that time, could barely have imagined that at the turn of the century two million people would be encased in a prison regime that is far more sophisticated and repressive than it was at the onset of Nixon’s presidency, when about 150,000 people were imprisoned nationally in decrepit, overcrowded buildings. So in a sense, your response to the first question echoes the essential truth of what was being dismissed, in your words, as the paranoid “political naivete” of young radical activists in the early 1970s. I think we might even consider the formation of prison abolitionism as a logical response to this new human warehousing strategy. In this vein, could you give a basic summary of the fundamental principles underlying the contemporary prison abolitionist movement?

Angela: First of all, I must say that I would hesitate to characterize the contemporary prison abolition movement as a homogeneous and united international effort to displace the institution of the prison. For example, the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), which periodically brings scholars and activists together from Europe, South America, Australia, Africa, and North America, reveals the varied nature of this movement. Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner and longtime activist, has a longer history of involvement with ICOPA than I do since he attended the conference in New Zealand three years ago. My first direct contact with ICOPA was this past May, when I attended the Toronto gathering.

Dylan: Was there anything about ICOPA that particularly impressed you?

Angela: The ICOPA conference in Toronto revealed some of the major strengths and weaknesses of the abolitionist movement. First of all, despite the rather homogenous character of their circle, they have managed to keep the notion of abolitionism alive precisely at a time when developing radical alternatives to the prison-industrial complex is becoming a necessity. That is to say, abolitionism should not now be considered an unrealizable utopian dream, but rather the only possible way to halt the further transnational development of prison industries. That ICOPA claims supporters in Europe and Latin America is an indication of what is possible. However, the racial homogeneity of ICOPA, and the related failure to incorporate an analysis of race into the theoretical framework of their version of abolitionism, is a major weakness. The conference demonstrated that while faith-based approaches to the abolition of penal systems can be quite powerful, organizing strategies must go much further. We need to develop and popularize the kinds of analyses that explain why people of color predominate in prison populations throughout the world and how this structural racism is linked to the globalization of capital.

Dylan: Yes, I found that the political vision of ICOPA was extraordinarily limited, especially considering its professed commitment to a more radical abolitionist analysis and program. This undoubtedly had a lot to do with the underlying racism of the organization itself, which was reflected in the language of some of the conference resolutions: “We support all transformative measures which enable us to live better in community with those we as a society find most difficult, and most consistently marginalize or exclude” (emphasis added)1. A major figure in ICOPA even accused a small group of people of color in attendance of being “racist” when they attempted to constructively criticize the overwhelming white homogeneity of the conference and the need for creative strategies to engage communities of color in such an important political discussion. Several black student-activists I met at ICOPA told me how alienated they felt at the conference, especially when they realized that the ICOPA organizers had never attempted to contact the Toronto-based organizations with which these student-activists were working: a major black anti-police-brutality coalition, a black prisoner support organization, etc. So I certainly share your frustrations with ICOPA. At the same time, I find myself wondering how a new political formation of prison abolitionism can form in such a reactionary national and global climate. You have been involved with a variety of prison movements for the last 30 years, so maybe you can help me out. How do you think about this new political challenge within a broader historical perspective?

Angela: There are multiple histories of prison abolition. The Scandinavian scholar/activist Thomas Mathieson first published his germinal text, The Politics of Abolition, in 1974, when activist movements were calling for the disestablishment of prisons — in the aftermath of the Attica Rebellion and prison uprisings throughout Europe. He was concerned with transforming prison reform movements into more radical movements to abolish prisons as the major institutions of punishment. There was a pattern of decarceration in the Netherlands until the mid-1980s, which seemed to establish the Dutch system as a model prison system, and the later rise in prison construction and the expansion of the incarcerated population has served to stimulate abolitionist ideas. Criminologist Willem de Haan published a book in 1990 entitled The Politics of Redress: Crime, Punishment, and Penal Abolition. One of the most interesting texts, from the point of view of U.S. activist history is Fay Honey Knopp’s volume Instead of Prison: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists, which was published in 1976, with funding from the American Friends. This handbook points out the contradictory relationship between imprisonment and an “enlightened, free society.” Prison abolition, like the abolition of slavery, is a long-range goal and the handbook argues that an abolitionist approach requires an analysis of “crime” that links it with social structures, as opposed to individual pathology, as well as “anticrime” strategies that focus on the provision of social resources. Of course, there are many versions of prison abolitionism — including those that propose to abolish punishment altogether and replace it with reconciliatory responses to criminal acts. In my opinion, the most powerful relevance of abolitionist theory and practice today resides in the fact that without a radical position vis-a-vis the rapidly expanding prison system, prison architecture, prison surveillance, and prison system corporatization, prison culture, with all its racist and totalitarian implications, will continue not only to claim ever increasing numbers of people of color, but also to shape social relations more generally in our society. Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.

Dylan: I think you make a subtle but important point here: prison and penal abolition imply an analysis of society that illuminates the repressive logic, as well as the fascistic historical trajectory, of the prison’s growth as a social and industrial institution. Theoretically and politically, this “radical position,” as you call it, introduces a new set of questions that does not necessarily advocate a pragmatic “alternative” or a concrete and immediate “solution” to what currently exists. In fact, I think this is an entirely appropriate position to assume when dealing with a policing and jurisprudence system that inherently disallows the asking of such fundamental questions as: Why are some lives considered more disposable than others under the weight of police policy and criminal law? How have we arrived at a place where killing is valorized and defended when it is organized by the state — I’m thinking about the street lynchings of Diallo and Dorismond in New York City, the bombing of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in 1985, the ongoing bombing of Iraqi civilians by the United States — yet viciously avenged (by the state) when committed by isolated individuals? Why have we come to associate community safety and personal security with the degree to which the state exercises violence through policing and criminal justice? You’ve written elsewhere that the primary challenge for penal abolitionists in the United States is to construct a political language and theoretical discourse that disarticulates crime from punishment. In a sense, this implies a principled refusal to pander to the typically pragmatist impulse to demand absolute answers and solutions right now to a problem that has deep roots in the social formation of the United States since the 1960s. I think your open-ended conception of prison abolition also allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the prison-industrial complex as a set of institutional and political relationships that extend well beyond the walls of the prison proper. So in a sense, prison abolition is itself a broader critique of society. This brings me to the next question: What are the most crucial distinctions between the political commitments and agendas of prison reformists and those of prison abolitionists?

Angela: The seemingly unbreakable link between prison reform and prison development — referred to by Foucault in his analysis of prison history — has created a situation in which progress in prison reform has tended to render the prison more impermeable to change and has resulted in bigger, and what are considered “better,” prisons. The most difficult question for advocates of prison abolition is how to establish a balance between reforms that are clearly necessary to safeguard the lives of prisoners and those strategies designed to promote the eventual abolition of prisons as the dominant mode of punishment. In other words, I do not think that there is a strict dividing line between reform and abolition. For example, it would be utterly absurd for a radical prison activist to refuse to support the demand for better health care inside Valley State, California’s largest women’s prison, under the pretext that such reforms would make the prison a more viable institution. Demands for improved health care, including protection from sexual abuse and challenges to the myriad ways in which prisons violate prisoners’ human rights, can be integrated into an abolitionist context that elaborates specific decarceration strategies and helps to develop a popular discourse on the need to shift resources from punishment to education, housing, health care, and other public resources and services.


Dylan: Speaking of developing a popular discourse, the Critical Resistance gathering in September 1998 seemed to pull together an incredibly wide array of prison activists — cultural workers, prisoner support and legal advocates, former prisoners, radical teachers, all kinds of researchers, progressive policy scholars and criminologists, and many others. Although you were quite clear in the conference’s opening plenary session that the purpose of Critical Resistance was to encourage people to imagine radical strategies for a sustained prison abolition campaign, it was clear to me that only a few people took this dimension of the conference seriously. That is, it seemed convenient for people to rejoice at the unprecedented level of participation in this presumably “radical” prison activist gathering, but the level of analysis and political discussion generally failed to embrace the creative challenge of formulating new ways to link existing activism to a larger abolitionist agenda. People were generally more interested in developing an analysis of the prison-industrial complex that incorporated the local work that they were involved in, which I think is an important practical connection to make. At the same time, I think there is an inherent danger in conflating militant reform and human rights strategies with the underlying logic of anti-prison radicalism, which conceives of the ultimate eradication of the prison as a site of state violence and social repression. What is required, at least in part, is a new vernacular that enables this kind of political dream. How does prison abolition necessitate new political language, teachings, and organizing strategies? How could these strategies help to educate and organize people inside and outside the prison for abolition?

Angela: In order to imagine a world without prisons — or at least a social landscape no longer dominated by the prison — a new popular vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned. Thus, one of the first challenges is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance. In the university, the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of prison studies can help to trouble the prevailing criminology discourses that shape public policy as well as popular ideas about the permanence of prisons. At the high school level, new curricula can also be developed that encourage critical thinking about the role of punishment. Community organizations can also play a role in urging people to link their demands for better schools, for example, to a reduction of prison spending.

Dylan: Your last comment suggests that we need to rupture the ideological structures embodied by the rise of the prison-industrial complex. How does prison abolition force us to rethink common assumptions about jurisprudence, in particular “criminal justice?”

Angela: Since the invention of the prison as punishment in Western society during the late 1700s, criminal justice systems have so thoroughly depended on imprisonment that we have lost the ability to imagine other ways to solve the problem of “crime.” One of the interesting contributions of prison abolitionists has been to propose other paradigms of punishment or to suggest that we need to extricate ourselves from the assumption that punishment must be a necessary response to all violations of the law. Reconciliatory or restorative justice, for example, is presented by some abolitionists as an approach that has proved successful in non-Western societies — Native American societies, for example — and that can be tailored for use in urban contexts in cases that involve property and other offenses. The underlying idea is that in many cases, the reconciliation of offender and victim (including monetary compensation to the victim) is a much more progressive vision of justice than the social exile of the offender. This is only one example — the point is that we will not be free to imagine other ways of addressing crime as long as we see the prison as a permanent fixture for dealing with all or most violations of the law.

http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/davisinterview.html

Davis: The Challenges of Prison Abolition

Celebrate the International Observation of the Anniversary
of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

ABOLISH THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!!
——————–

this is a great article from a few years back, posted in History is a Weapon, with Angela Davis making the connections between the institution of slavery and the prison industrial complex of today.

————–


The Challenge of Prison Abolition:

A conversation between Angela Y. Davis and Dylan Rodriguez

2004

History is a weapon

Angela Y. Davis teaches in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California (215 Oakes College, Santa Cruz, CA 95060), and has been actively involved in prison-related campaigns since the events that led to her own incarceration in 1970. Dylan Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor at University of California – Riverside and was involved in the formation of Critical Resistance. Rodriguez’s first book, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the Formation of the U.S. Prison Regime will be published in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Press.

Dylan: Your emergence as a radical prison activist was deeply influenced by your experience as a prisoner. Could you talk a bit about how imprisonment affected your political formation, and the impact that it had on your eventual identification as prison abolitionists?

Angela: The time I spent in jail was both an outcome of my work on prison issues and a profound influence on my subsequent trajectory as a prison activist. When I was arrested in the summer of 1970 in connection with my involvement in the campaign to free George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, I was one of many activists who had been previously active in defense movements. In editing the anthology, If They Come in the Morning (1971) while I was in jail, Bettina Aptheker and I attempted to draw upon the organizing and legal experiences associated with a vast number of contemporary campaigns to free political prisoners. The most important lessons emanating from those campaigns, we thought, demonstrated the need to examine the overall role of the prison system, especially its class and racial character.

There was a relationship, as George Jackson had insisted, between the rising numbers of political prisoners and the imprisonment of increasing numbers of poor people of color. If prison was the state-sanctioned destination for activists such as myself, it was also used as a surrogate solution to social problems associated with poverty and racism. Although imprisonment was equated with rehabilitation in the dominant discourse at that time, it was obvious to us that its primary purpose was repression.


Along with other radical activists of that era, we thus began to explore what it might mean to combine our call for the freedom of political prisoners with an embryonic call for the abolition of prisons. Of course we had not yet thought through all of the implications of such a position, but today it seems that what was viewed at that time as political naivete, the un-theorized and utopian impulses of young people trying to be revolutionary, foreshadowed what was to become, at the turn of the century, the important project of critically examining the political economy of a prison system, whose unrestrained growth urgently needs to be reversed.

Dylan: What interests me is the manner in which your trial — and the rather widespread social movement that enveloped it, along with other political trials — enabled a wide variety of activists to articulate a radical critique of U.S. jurisprudence and imprisonment. The strategic framing of yours and others’ individual political biographies within a broader set of social and historical forces — state violence, racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, the growth and transformation of U.S. capitalism — disrupted the logic of the criminal justice apparatus in a fundamental way. Turning attention away from conventional notions of “crime” as isolated, individual instances of misbehavior necessitated a basic questioning of the conditions that cast “criminality” as a convenient political rationale for the warehousing of large numbers of poor, disenfranchised, and displaced black people and other people of color.

Many activists are now referring to imprisonment as a new form of slavery, refocusing attention on the historical function of the 13th Amendment in reconstructing enslavement as a punishment reserved for those “duly convicted.” Yet, when we look more closely at the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, the language of enslavement fails to the extent that it relies on the category of forced labor as its basic premise. People frequently forget that the majority of imprisoned people are not workers, and that work is itself made available only as a “privilege” for the most favored prisoners.

The logic of the prison-industrial complex is closer to what you, George Jackson, and others were forecasting back then as mass containment, the effective elimination of large numbers of (poor, black) people from the realm of civil society. Yet, the current social impact of the prison-industrial complex must have been virtually unfathomable 30 years ago. One could make the argument that the growth of this massive structure has met or exceeded the most ominous forecasts of people who, at that time, could barely have imagined that at the turn of the century two million people would be encased in a prison regime that is far more sophisticated and repressive than it was at the onset of Nixon’s presidency, when about 150,000 people were imprisoned nationally in decrepit, overcrowded buildings.


So in a sense, your response to the first question echoes the essential truth of what was being dismissed, in your words, as the paranoid “political naivete” of young radical activists in the early 1970s. I think we might even consider the formation of prison abolitionism as a logical response to this new human warehousing strategy. In this vein, could you give a basic summary of the fundamental principles underlying the contemporary prison abolitionist movement?

Angela: First of all, I must say that I would hesitate to characterize the contemporary prison abolition movement as a homogeneous and united international effort to displace the institution of the prison. For example, the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), which periodically brings scholars and activists together from Europe, South America, Australia, Africa, and North America, reveals the varied nature of this movement. Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner and longtime activist, has a longer history of involvement with ICOPA than I do since he attended the conference in New Zealand three years ago. My first direct contact with ICOPA was this past May, when I attended the Toronto gathering.

Dylan: Was there anything about ICOPA that particularly impressed you?

Angela: The ICOPA conference in Toronto revealed some of the major strengths and weaknesses of the abolitionist movement. First of all, despite the rather homogenous character of their circle, they have managed to keep the notion of abolitionism alive precisely at a time when developing radical alternatives to the prison-industrial complex is becoming a necessity. That is to say, abolitionism should not now be considered an unrealizable utopian dream, but rather the only possible way to halt the further transnational development of prison industries.


That ICOPA claims supporters in Europe and Latin America is an indication of what is possible. However, the racial homogeneity of ICOPA, and the related failure to incorporate an analysis of race into the theoretical framework of their version of abolitionism, is a major weakness. The conference demonstrated that while faith-based approaches to the abolition of penal systems can be quite powerful, organizing strategies must go much further. We need to develop and popularize the kinds of analyses that explain why people of color predominate in prison populations throughout the world and how this structural racism is linked to the globalization of capital.

Dylan: Yes, I found that the political vision of ICOPA was extraordinarily limited, especially considering its professed commitment to a more radical abolitionist analysis and program. This undoubtedly had a lot to do with the underlying racism of the organization itself, which was reflected in the language of some of the conference resolutions: “We support all transformative measures which enable us to live better in community with those we as a society find most difficult, and most consistently marginalize or exclude” (emphasis added)1.


A major figure in ICOPA even accused a small group of people of color in attendance of being “racist” when they attempted to constructively criticize the overwhelming white homogeneity of the conference and the need for creative strategies to engage communities of color in such an important political discussion. Several black student-activists I met at ICOPA told me how alienated they felt at the conference, especially when they realized that the ICOPA organizers had never attempted to contact the Toronto-based organizations with which these student-activists were working: a major black anti-police-brutality coalition, a black prisoner support organization, etc.


So I certainly share your frustrations with ICOPA. At the same time, I find myself wondering how a new political formation of prison abolitionism can form in such a reactionary national and global climate. You have been involved with a variety of prison movements for the last 30 years, so maybe you can help me out. How do you think about this new political challenge within a broader historical perspective?

Angela: There are multiple histories of prison abolition. The Scandinavian scholar/activist Thomas Mathieson first published his germinal text, The Politics of Abolition, in 1974, when activist movements were calling for the disestablishment of prisons — in the aftermath of the Attica Rebellion and prison uprisings throughout Europe. He was concerned with transforming prison reform movements into more radical movements to abolish prisons as the major institutions of punishment.


There was a pattern of decarceration in the Netherlands until the mid-1980s, which seemed to establish the Dutch system as a model prison system, and the later rise in prison construction and the expansion of the incarcerated population has served to stimulate abolitionist ideas. Criminologist Willem de Haan published a book in 1990 entitled The Politics of Redress: Crime, Punishment, and Penal Abolition.



One of the most interesting texts, from the point of view of U.S. activist history is Fay Honey Knopp’s volume Instead of Prison: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists, which was published in 1976, with funding from the American Friends. This handbook points out the contradictory relationship between imprisonment and an “enlightened, free society.” Prison abolition, like the abolition of slavery, is a long-range goal and the handbook argues that an abolitionist approach requires an analysis of “crime” that links it with social structures, as opposed to individual pathology, as well as “anticrime” strategies that focus on the provision of social resources.


Of course, there are many versions of prison abolitionism — including those that propose to abolish punishment altogether and replace it with reconciliatory responses to criminal acts. In my opinion, the most powerful relevance of abolitionist theory and practice today resides in the fact that without a radical position vis-a-vis the rapidly expanding prison system, prison architecture, prison surveillance, and prison system corporatization, prison culture, with all its racist and totalitarian implications, will continue not only to claim ever increasing numbers of people of color, but also to shape social relations more generally in our society.


Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.

Dylan: I think you make a subtle but important point here: prison and penal abolition imply an analysis of society that illuminates the repressive logic, as well as the fascistic historical trajectory, of the prison’s growth as a social and industrial institution. Theoretically and politically, this “radical position,” as you call it, introduces a new set of questions that does not necessarily advocate a pragmatic “alternative” or a concrete and immediate “solution” to what currently exists. In fact, I think this is an entirely appropriate position to assume when dealing with a policing and jurisprudence system that inherently disallows the asking of such fundamental questions as: Why are some lives considered more disposable than others under the weight of police policy and criminal law?


How have we arrived at a place where killing is valorized and defended when it is organized by the state — I’m thinking about the street lynchings of Diallo and Dorismond in New York City, the bombing of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in 1985, the ongoing bombing of Iraqi civilians by the United States — yet viciously avenged (by the state) when committed by isolated individuals? Why have we come to associate community safety and personal security with the degree to which the state exercises violence through policing and criminal justice?


You’ve written elsewhere that the primary challenge for penal abolitionists in the United States is to construct a political language and theoretical discourse that disarticulates crime from punishment. In a sense, this implies a principled refusal to pander to the typically pragmatist impulse to demand absolute answers and solutions right now to a problem that has deep roots in the social formation of the United States since the 1960s. I think your open-ended conception of prison abolition also allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the prison-industrial complex as a set of institutional and political relationships that extend well beyond the walls of the prison proper.


So in a sense, prison abolition is itself a broader critique of society. This brings me to the next question: What are the most crucial distinctions between the political commitments and agendas of prison reformists and those of prison abolitionists?

Angela: The seemingly unbreakable link between prison reform and prison development — referred to by Foucault in his analysis of prison history — has created a situation in which progress in prison reform has tended to render the prison more impermeable to change and has resulted in bigger, and what are considered “better,” prisons.


The most difficult question for advocates of prison abolition is how to establish a balance between reforms that are clearly necessary to safeguard the lives of prisoners and those strategies designed to promote the eventual abolition of prisons as the dominant mode of punishment. In other words, I do not think that there is a strict dividing line between reform and abolition.


For example, it would be utterly absurd for a radical prison activist to refuse to support the demand for better health care inside Valley State, California’s largest women’s prison, under the pretext that such reforms would make the prison a more viable institution. Demands for improved health care, including protection from sexual abuse and challenges to the myriad ways in which prisons violate prisoners’ human rights, can be integrated into an abolitionist context that elaborates specific decarceration strategies and helps to develop a popular discourse on the need to shift resources from punishment to education, housing, health care, and other public resources and services.


Dylan: Speaking of developing a popular discourse, the Critical Resistance gathering in September 1998 seemed to pull together an incredibly wide array of prison activists — cultural workers, prisoner support and legal advocates, former prisoners, radical teachers, all kinds of researchers, progressive policy scholars and criminologists, and many others.


Although you were quite clear in the conference’s opening plenary session that the purpose of Critical Resistance was to encourage people to imagine radical strategies for a sustained prison abolition campaign, it was clear to me that only a few people took this dimension of the conference seriously. That is, it seemed convenient for people to rejoice at the unprecedented level of participation in this presumably “radical” prison activist gathering, but the level of analysis and political discussion generally failed to embrace the creative challenge of formulating new ways to link existing activism to a larger abolitionist agenda. People were generally more interested in developing an analysis of the prison-industrial complex that incorporated the local work that they were involved in, which I think is an important practical connection to make.


At the same time, I think there is an inherent danger in conflating militant reform and human rights strategies with the underlying logic of anti-prison radicalism, which conceives of the ultimate eradication of the prison as a site of state violence and social repression. What is required, at least in part, is a new vernacular that enables this kind of political dream. How does prison abolition necessitate new political language, teachings, and organizing strategies? How could these strategies help to educate and organize people inside and outside the prison for abolition?

Angela: In order to imagine a world without prisons — or at least a social landscape no longer dominated by the prison — a new popular vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned.


Thus, one of the first challenges is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance. In the university, the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of prison studies can help to trouble the prevailing criminology discourses that shape public policy as well as popular ideas about the permanence of prisons. At the high school level, new curricula can also be developed that encourage critical thinking about the role of punishment. Community organizations can also play a role in urging people to link their demands for better schools, for example, to a reduction of prison spending.

Dylan: Your last comment suggests that we need to rupture the ideological structures embodied by the rise of the prison-industrial complex. How does prison abolition force us to rethink common assumptions about jurisprudence, in particular “criminal justice?”

Angela: Since the invention of the prison as punishment in Western society during the late 1700s, criminal justice systems have so thoroughly depended on imprisonment that we have lost the ability to imagine other ways to solve the problem of “crime.” One of the interesting contributions of prison abolitionists has been to propose other paradigms of punishment or to suggest that we need to extricate ourselves from the assumption that punishment must be a necessary response to all violations of the law.


Reconciliatory or restorative justice, for example, is presented by some abolitionists as an approach that has proved successful in non-Western societies — Native American societies, for example — and that can be tailored for use in urban contexts in cases that involve property and other offenses. The underlying idea is that in many cases, the reconciliation of offender and victim (including monetary compensation to the victim) is a much more progressive vision of justice than the social exile of the offender. This is only one example — the point is that we will not be free to imagine other ways of addressing crime as long as we see the prison as a permanent fixture for dealing with all or most violations of the law.

http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/davisinterview.html

Davis: The Challenges of Prison Abolition

Celebrate the International Observation of the Anniversary
of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

ABOLISH THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!!

——————–

this is a great article from a few years back, posted in History is a Weapon, with Angela Davis making the connections between the institution of slavery and the prison industrial complex of today.

————–

The Challenge of Prison Abolition:

A conversation between Angela Y. Davis and Dylan Rodriguez

2004

History is a weapon

Angela Y. Davis teaches in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California (215 Oakes College, Santa Cruz, CA 95060), and has been actively involved in prison-related campaigns since the events that led to her own incarceration in 1970. Dylan Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor at University of California – Riverside and was involved in the formation of Critical Resistance. Rodriguez’s first book, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the Formation of the U.S. Prison Regime will be published in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Press.

Dylan: Your emergence as a radical prison activist was deeply influenced by your experience as a prisoner. Could you talk a bit about how imprisonment affected your political formation, and the impact that it had on your eventual identification as prison abolitionists?

Angela: The time I spent in jail was both an outcome of my work on prison issues and a profound influence on my subsequent trajectory as a prison activist. When I was arrested in the summer of 1970 in connection with my involvement in the campaign to free George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, I was one of many activists who had been previously active in defense movements. In editing the anthology, If They Come in the Morning (1971) while I was in jail, Bettina Aptheker and I attempted to draw upon the organizing and legal experiences associated with a vast number of contemporary campaigns to free political prisoners. The most important lessons emanating from those campaigns, we thought, demonstrated the need to examine the overall role of the prison system, especially its class and racial character.

There was a relationship, as George Jackson had insisted, between the rising numbers of political prisoners and the imprisonment of increasing numbers of poor people of color. If prison was the state-sanctioned destination for activists such as myself, it was also used as a surrogate solution to social problems associated with poverty and racism. Although imprisonment was equated with rehabilitation in the dominant discourse at that time, it was obvious to us that its primary purpose was repression.


Along with other radical activists of that era, we thus began to explore what it might mean to combine our call for the freedom of political prisoners with an embryonic call for the abolition of prisons. Of course we had not yet thought through all of the implications of such a position, but today it seems that what was viewed at that time as political naivete, the un-theorized and utopian impulses of young people trying to be revolutionary, foreshadowed what was to become, at the turn of the century, the important project of critically examining the political economy of a prison system, whose unrestrained growth urgently needs to be reversed.

Dylan: What interests me is the manner in which your trial — and the rather widespread social movement that enveloped it, along with other political trials — enabled a wide variety of activists to articulate a radical critique of U.S. jurisprudence and imprisonment. The strategic framing of yours and others’ individual political biographies within a broader set of social and historical forces — state violence, racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, the growth and transformation of U.S. capitalism — disrupted the logic of the criminal justice apparatus in a fundamental way. Turning attention away from conventional notions of “crime” as isolated, individual instances of misbehavior necessitated a basic questioning of the conditions that cast “criminality” as a convenient political rationale for the warehousing of large numbers of poor, disenfranchised, and displaced black people and other people of color.

Many activists are now referring to imprisonment as a new form of slavery, refocusing attention on the historical function of the 13th Amendment in reconstructing enslavement as a punishment reserved for those “duly convicted.” Yet, when we look more closely at the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, the language of enslavement fails to the extent that it relies on the category of forced labor as its basic premise. People frequently forget that the majority of imprisoned people are not workers, and that work is itself made available only as a “privilege” for the most favored prisoners.

The logic of the prison-industrial complex is closer to what you, George Jackson, and others were forecasting back then as mass containment, the effective elimination of large numbers of (poor, black) people from the realm of civil society. Yet, the current social impact of the prison-industrial complex must have been virtually unfathomable 30 years ago. One could make the argument that the growth of this massive structure has met or exceeded the most ominous forecasts of people who, at that time, could barely have imagined that at the turn of the century two million people would be encased in a prison regime that is far more sophisticated and repressive than it was at the onset of Nixon’s presidency, when about 150,000 people were imprisoned nationally in decrepit, overcrowded buildings.


So in a sense, your response to the first question echoes the essential truth of what was being dismissed, in your words, as the paranoid “political naivete” of young radical activists in the early 1970s. I think we might even consider the formation of prison abolitionism as a logical response to this new human warehousing strategy. In this vein, could you give a basic summary of the fundamental principles underlying the contemporary prison abolitionist movement?

Angela: First of all, I must say that I would hesitate to characterize the contemporary prison abolition movement as a homogeneous and united international effort to displace the institution of the prison. For example, the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), which periodically brings scholars and activists together from Europe, South America, Australia, Africa, and North America, reveals the varied nature of this movement. Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner and longtime activist, has a longer history of involvement with ICOPA than I do since he attended the conference in New Zealand three years ago. My first direct contact with ICOPA was this past May, when I attended the Toronto gathering.

Dylan: Was there anything about ICOPA that particularly impressed you?

Angela: The ICOPA conference in Toronto revealed some of the major strengths and weaknesses of the abolitionist movement. First of all, despite the rather homogenous character of their circle, they have managed to keep the notion of abolitionism alive precisely at a time when developing radical alternatives to the prison-industrial complex is becoming a necessity. That is to say, abolitionism should not now be considered an unrealizable utopian dream, but rather the only possible way to halt the further transnational development of prison industries.


That ICOPA claims supporters in Europe and Latin America is an indication of what is possible. However, the racial homogeneity of ICOPA, and the related failure to incorporate an analysis of race into the theoretical framework of their version of abolitionism, is a major weakness. The conference demonstrated that while faith-based approaches to the abolition of penal systems can be quite powerful, organizing strategies must go much further. We need to develop and popularize the kinds of analyses that explain why people of color predominate in prison populations throughout the world and how this structural racism is linked to the globalization of capital.

Dylan: Yes, I found that the political vision of ICOPA was extraordinarily limited, especially considering its professed commitment to a more radical abolitionist analysis and program. This undoubtedly had a lot to do with the underlying racism of the organization itself, which was reflected in the language of some of the conference resolutions: “We support all transformative measures which enable us to live better in community with those we as a society find most difficult, and most consistently marginalize or exclude” (emphasis added)1.


A major figure in ICOPA even accused a small group of people of color in attendance of being “racist” when they attempted to constructively criticize the overwhelming white homogeneity of the conference and the need for creative strategies to engage communities of color in such an important political discussion. Several black student-activists I met at ICOPA told me how alienated they felt at the conference, especially when they realized that the ICOPA organizers had never attempted to contact the Toronto-based organizations with which these student-activists were working: a major black anti-police-brutality coalition, a black prisoner support organization, etc.


So I certainly share your frustrations with ICOPA. At the same time, I find myself wondering how a new political formation of prison abolitionism can form in such a reactionary national and global climate. You have been involved with a variety of prison movements for the last 30 years, so maybe you can help me out. How do you think about this new political challenge within a broader historical perspective?

Angela: There are multiple histories of prison abolition. The Scandinavian scholar/activist Thomas Mathieson first published his germinal text, The Politics of Abolition, in 1974, when activist movements were calling for the disestablishment of prisons — in the aftermath of the Attica Rebellion and prison uprisings throughout Europe. He was concerned with transforming prison reform movements into more radical movements to abolish prisons as the major institutions of punishment.


There was a pattern of decarceration in the Netherlands until the mid-1980s, which seemed to establish the Dutch system as a model prison system, and the later rise in prison construction and the expansion of the incarcerated population has served to stimulate abolitionist ideas. Criminologist Willem de Haan published a book in 1990 entitled The Politics of Redress: Crime, Punishment, and Penal Abolition.



One of the most interesting texts, from the point of view of U.S. activist history is Fay Honey Knopp’s volume Instead of Prison: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists, which was published in 1976, with funding from the American Friends. This handbook points out the contradictory relationship between imprisonment and an “enlightened, free society.” Prison abolition, like the abolition of slavery, is a long-range goal and the handbook argues that an abolitionist approach requires an analysis of “crime” that links it with social structures, as opposed to individual pathology, as well as “anticrime” strategies that focus on the provision of social resources.


Of course, there are many versions of prison abolitionism — including those that propose to abolish punishment altogether and replace it with reconciliatory responses to criminal acts. In my opinion, the most powerful relevance of abolitionist theory and practice today resides in the fact that without a radical position vis-a-vis the rapidly expanding prison system, prison architecture, prison surveillance, and prison system corporatization, prison culture, with all its racist and totalitarian implications, will continue not only to claim ever increasing numbers of people of color, but also to shape social relations more generally in our society.


Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.

Dylan: I think you make a subtle but important point here: prison and penal abolition imply an analysis of society that illuminates the repressive logic, as well as the fascistic historical trajectory, of the prison’s growth as a social and industrial institution. Theoretically and politically, this “radical position,” as you call it, introduces a new set of questions that does not necessarily advocate a pragmatic “alternative” or a concrete and immediate “solution” to what currently exists. In fact, I think this is an entirely appropriate position to assume when dealing with a policing and jurisprudence system that inherently disallows the asking of such fundamental questions as: Why are some lives considered more disposable than others under the weight of police policy and criminal law?


How have we arrived at a place where killing is valorized and defended when it is organized by the state — I’m thinking about the street lynchings of Diallo and Dorismond in New York City, the bombing of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in 1985, the ongoing bombing of Iraqi civilians by the United States — yet viciously avenged (by the state) when committed by isolated individuals? Why have we come to associate community safety and personal security with the degree to which the state exercises violence through policing and criminal justice?


You’ve written elsewhere that the primary challenge for penal abolitionists in the United States is to construct a political language and theoretical discourse that disarticulates crime from punishment. In a sense, this implies a principled refusal to pander to the typically pragmatist impulse to demand absolute answers and solutions right now to a problem that has deep roots in the social formation of the United States since the 1960s. I think your open-ended conception of prison abolition also allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the prison-industrial complex as a set of institutional and political relationships that extend well beyond the walls of the prison proper.


So in a sense, prison abolition is itself a broader critique of society. This brings me to the next question: What are the most crucial distinctions between the political commitments and agendas of prison reformists and those of prison abolitionists?

Angela: The seemingly unbreakable link between prison reform and prison development — referred to by Foucault in his analysis of prison history — has created a situation in which progress in prison reform has tended to render the prison more impermeable to change and has resulted in bigger, and what are considered “better,” prisons.


The most difficult question for advocates of prison abolition is how to establish a balance between reforms that are clearly necessary to safeguard the lives of prisoners and those strategies designed to promote the eventual abolition of prisons as the dominant mode of punishment. In other words, I do not think that there is a strict dividing line between reform and abolition.


For example, it would be utterly absurd for a radical prison activist to refuse to support the demand for better health care inside Valley State, California’s largest women’s prison, under the pretext that such reforms would make the prison a more viable institution. Demands for improved health care, including protection from sexual abuse and challenges to the myriad ways in which prisons violate prisoners’ human rights, can be integrated into an abolitionist context that elaborates specific decarceration strategies and helps to develop a popular discourse on the need to shift resources from punishment to education, housing, health care, and other public resources and services.


Dylan: Speaking of developing a popular discourse, the Critical Resistance gathering in September 1998 seemed to pull together an incredibly wide array of prison activists — cultural workers, prisoner support and legal advocates, former prisoners, radical teachers, all kinds of researchers, progressive policy scholars and criminologists, and many others.


Although you were quite clear in the conference’s opening plenary session that the purpose of Critical Resistance was to encourage people to imagine radical strategies for a sustained prison abolition campaign, it was clear to me that only a few people took this dimension of the conference seriously. That is, it seemed convenient for people to rejoice at the unprecedented level of participation in this presumably “radical” prison activist gathering, but the level of analysis and political discussion generally failed to embrace the creative challenge of formulating new ways to link existing activism to a larger abolitionist agenda. People were generally more interested in developing an analysis of the prison-industrial complex that incorporated the local work that they were involved in, which I think is an important practical connection to make.


At the same time, I think there is an inherent danger in conflating militant reform and human rights strategies with the underlying logic of anti-prison radicalism, which conceives of the ultimate eradication of the prison as a site of state violence and social repression. What is required, at least in part, is a new vernacular that enables this kind of political dream. How does prison abolition necessitate new political language, teachings, and organizing strategies? How could these strategies help to educate and organize people inside and outside the prison for abolition?

Angela: In order to imagine a world without prisons — or at least a social landscape no longer dominated by the prison — a new popular vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned.


Thus, one of the first challenges is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance. In the university, the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of prison studies can help to trouble the prevailing criminology discourses that shape public policy as well as popular ideas about the permanence of prisons. At the high school level, new curricula can also be developed that encourage critical thinking about the role of punishment. Community organizations can also play a role in urging people to link their demands for better schools, for example, to a reduction of prison spending.

Dylan: Your last comment suggests that we need to rupture the ideological structures embodied by the rise of the prison-industrial complex. How does prison abolition force us to rethink common assumptions about jurisprudence, in particular “criminal justice?”

Angela: Since the invention of the prison as punishment in Western society during the late 1700s, criminal justice systems have so thoroughly depended on imprisonment that we have lost the ability to imagine other ways to solve the problem of “crime.” One of the interesting contributions of prison abolitionists has been to propose other paradigms of punishment or to suggest that we need to extricate ourselves from the assumption that punishment must be a necessary response to all violations of the law.


Reconciliatory or restorative justice, for example, is presented by some abolitionists as an approach that has proved successful in non-Western societies — Native American societies, for example — and that can be tailored for use in urban contexts in cases that involve property and other offenses. The underlying idea is that in many cases, the reconciliation of offender and victim (including monetary compensation to the victim) is a much more progressive vision of justice than the social exile of the offender. This is only one example — the point is that we will not be free to imagine other ways of addressing crime as long as we see the prison as a permanent fixture for dealing with all or most violations of the law.

Davis: The Challenges of Prison Abolition

Celebrate the International Observation of the Anniversary of
the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

ABOLISH THE PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!!
——————–

this is a great article from a few years back, posted in History is a Weapon, with Angela Davis making the connections between the institution of slavery and the prison industrial complex of today.

——————-

The Challenge of Prison Abolition:

A conversation between Angela Y. Davis and Dylan Rodriguez

2004

History is a weapon

Angela Y. Davis teaches in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California (215 Oakes College, Santa Cruz, CA 95060), and has been actively involved in prison-related campaigns since the events that led to her own incarceration in 1970. Dylan Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor at University of California – Riverside and was involved in the formation of Critical Resistance. Rodriguez’s first book, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the Formation of the U.S. Prison Regime will be published in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Press.

Dylan: Your emergence as a radical prison activist was deeply influenced by your experience as a prisoner. Could you talk a bit about how imprisonment affected your political formation, and the impact that it had on your eventual identification as prison abolitionists?

Angela: The time I spent in jail was both an outcome of my work on prison issues and a profound influence on my subsequent trajectory as a prison activist. When I was arrested in the summer of 1970 in connection with my involvement in the campaign to free George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, I was one of many activists who had been previously active in defense movements. In editing the anthology, If They Come in the Morning (1971) while I was in jail, Bettina Aptheker and I attempted to draw upon the organizing and legal experiences associated with a vast number of contemporary campaigns to free political prisoners. The most important lessons emanating from those campaigns, we thought, demonstrated the need to examine the overall role of the prison system, especially its class and racial character.

There was a relationship, as George Jackson had insisted, between the rising numbers of political prisoners and the imprisonment of increasing numbers of poor people of color. If prison was the state-sanctioned destination for activists such as myself, it was also used as a surrogate solution to social problems associated with poverty and racism. Although imprisonment was equated with rehabilitation in the dominant discourse at that time, it was obvious to us that its primary purpose was repression. Along with other radical activists of that era, we thus began to explore what it might mean to combine our call for the freedom of political prisoners with an embryonic call for the abolition of prisons. Of course we had not yet thought through all of the implications of such a position, but today it seems that what was viewed at that time as political naivete, the un-theorized and utopian impulses of young people trying to be revolutionary, foreshadowed what was to become, at the turn of the century, the important project of critically examining the political economy of a prison system, whose unrestrained growth urgently needs to be reversed.

Dylan: What interests me is the manner in which your trial — and the rather widespread social movement that enveloped it, along with other political trials — enabled a wide variety of activists to articulate a radical critique of U.S. jurisprudence and imprisonment. The strategic framing of yours and others’ individual political biographies within a broader set of social and historical forces — state violence, racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, the growth and transformation of U.S. capitalism — disrupted the logic of the criminal justice apparatus in a fundamental way. Turning attention away from conventional notions of “crime” as isolated, individual instances of misbehavior necessitated a basic questioning of the conditions that cast “criminality” as a convenient political rationale for the warehousing of large numbers of poor, disenfranchised, and displaced black people and other people of color.

Many activists are now referring to imprisonment as a new form of slavery, refocusing attention on the historical function of the 13th Amendment in reconstructing enslavement as a punishment reserved for those “duly convicted.” Yet, when we look more closely at the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, the language of enslavement fails to the extent that it relies on the category of forced labor as its basic premise. People frequently forget that the majority of imprisoned people are not workers, and that work is itself made available only as a “privilege” for the most favored prisoners.

The logic of the prison-industrial complex is closer to what you, George Jackson, and others were forecasting back then as mass containment, the effective elimination of large numbers of (poor, black) people from the realm of civil society. Yet, the current social impact of the prison-industrial complex must have been virtually unfathomable 30 years ago. One could make the argument that the growth of this massive structure has met or exceeded the most ominous forecasts of people who, at that time, could barely have imagined that at the turn of the century two million people would be encased in a prison regime that is far more sophisticated and repressive than it was at the onset of Nixon’s presidency, when about 150,000 people were imprisoned nationally in decrepit, overcrowded buildings. So in a sense, your response to the first question echoes the essential truth of what was being dismissed, in your words, as the paranoid “political naivete” of young radical activists in the early 1970s. I think we might even consider the formation of prison abolitionism as a logical response to this new human warehousing strategy. In this vein, could you give a basic summary of the fundamental principles underlying the contemporary prison abolitionist movement?

Angela: First of all, I must say that I would hesitate to characterize the contemporary prison abolition movement as a homogeneous and united international effort to displace the institution of the prison. For example, the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), which periodically brings scholars and activists together from Europe, South America, Australia, Africa, and North America, reveals the varied nature of this movement. Dorsey Nunn, former prisoner and longtime activist, has a longer history of involvement with ICOPA than I do since he attended the conference in New Zealand three years ago. My first direct contact with ICOPA was this past May, when I attended the Toronto gathering.

Dylan: Was there anything about ICOPA that particularly impressed you?

Angela: The ICOPA conference in Toronto revealed some of the major strengths and weaknesses of the abolitionist movement. First of all, despite the rather homogenous character of their circle, they have managed to keep the notion of abolitionism alive precisely at a time when developing radical alternatives to the prison-industrial complex is becoming a necessity. That is to say, abolitionism should not now be considered an unrealizable utopian dream, but rather the only possible way to halt the further transnational development of prison industries. That ICOPA claims supporters in Europe and Latin America is an indication of what is possible. However, the racial homogeneity of ICOPA, and the related failure to incorporate an analysis of race into the theoretical framework of their version of abolitionism, is a major weakness. The conference demonstrated that while faith-based approaches to the abolition of penal systems can be quite powerful, organizing strategies must go much further. We need to develop and popularize the kinds of analyses that explain why people of color predominate in prison populations throughout the world and how this structural racism is linked to the globalization of capital.

Dylan: Yes, I found that the political vision of ICOPA was extraordinarily limited, especially considering its professed commitment to a more radical abolitionist analysis and program. This undoubtedly had a lot to do with the underlying racism of the organization itself, which was reflected in the language of some of the conference resolutions: “We support all transformative measures which enable us to live better in community with those we as a society find most difficult, and most consistently marginalize or exclude” (emphasis added)1. A major figure in ICOPA even accused a small group of people of color in attendance of being “racist” when they attempted to constructively criticize the overwhelming white homogeneity of the conference and the need for creative strategies to engage communities of color in such an important political discussion. Several black student-activists I met at ICOPA told me how alienated they felt at the conference, especially when they realized that the ICOPA organizers had never attempted to contact the Toronto-based organizations with which these student-activists were working: a major black anti-police-brutality coalition, a black prisoner support organization, etc. So I certainly share your frustrations with ICOPA. At the same time, I find myself wondering how a new political formation of prison abolitionism can form in such a reactionary national and global climate. You have been involved with a variety of prison movements for the last 30 years, so maybe you can help me out. How do you think about this new political challenge within a broader historical perspective?

Angela: There are multiple histories of prison abolition. The Scandinavian scholar/activist Thomas Mathieson first published his germinal text, The Politics of Abolition, in 1974, when activist movements were calling for the disestablishment of prisons — in the aftermath of the Attica Rebellion and prison uprisings throughout Europe. He was concerned with transforming prison reform movements into more radical movements to abolish prisons as the major institutions of punishment. There was a pattern of decarceration in the Netherlands until the mid-1980s, which seemed to establish the Dutch system as a model prison system, and the later rise in prison construction and the expansion of the incarcerated population has served to stimulate abolitionist ideas. Criminologist Willem de Haan published a book in 1990 entitled The Politics of Redress: Crime, Punishment, and Penal Abolition. One of the most interesting texts, from the point of view of U.S. activist history is Fay Honey Knopp’s volume Instead of Prison: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists, which was published in 1976, with funding from the American Friends. This handbook points out the contradictory relationship between imprisonment and an “enlightened, free society.” Prison abolition, like the abolition of slavery, is a long-range goal and the handbook argues that an abolitionist approach requires an analysis of “crime” that links it with social structures, as opposed to individual pathology, as well as “anticrime” strategies that focus on the provision of social resources. Of course, there are many versions of prison abolitionism — including those that propose to abolish punishment altogether and replace it with reconciliatory responses to criminal acts. In my opinion, the most powerful relevance of abolitionist theory and practice today resides in the fact that without a radical position vis-a-vis the rapidly expanding prison system, prison architecture, prison surveillance, and prison system corporatization, prison culture, with all its racist and totalitarian implications, will continue not only to claim ever increasing numbers of people of color, but also to shape social relations more generally in our society. Prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means. The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape.

Dylan: I think you make a subtle but important point here: prison and penal abolition imply an analysis of society that illuminates the repressive logic, as well as the fascistic historical trajectory, of the prison’s growth as a social and industrial institution. Theoretically and politically, this “radical position,” as you call it, introduces a new set of questions that does not necessarily advocate a pragmatic “alternative” or a concrete and immediate “solution” to what currently exists. In fact, I think this is an entirely appropriate position to assume when dealing with a policing and jurisprudence system that inherently disallows the asking of such fundamental questions as: Why are some lives considered more disposable than others under the weight of police policy and criminal law? How have we arrived at a place where killing is valorized and defended when it is organized by the state — I’m thinking about the street lynchings of Diallo and Dorismond in New York City, the bombing of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in 1985, the ongoing bombing of Iraqi civilians by the United States — yet viciously avenged (by the state) when committed by isolated individuals? Why have we come to associate community safety and personal security with the degree to which the state exercises violence through policing and criminal justice? You’ve written elsewhere that the primary challenge for penal abolitionists in the United States is to construct a political language and theoretical discourse that disarticulates crime from punishment. In a sense, this implies a principled refusal to pander to the typically pragmatist impulse to demand absolute answers and solutions right now to a problem that has deep roots in the social formation of the United States since the 1960s. I think your open-ended conception of prison abolition also allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the prison-industrial complex as a set of institutional and political relationships that extend well beyond the walls of the prison proper. So in a sense, prison abolition is itself a broader critique of society. This brings me to the next question: What are the most crucial distinctions between the political commitments and agendas of prison reformists and those of prison abolitionists?

Angela: The seemingly unbreakable link between prison reform and prison development — referred to by Foucault in his analysis of prison history — has created a situation in which progress in prison reform has tended to render the prison more impermeable to change and has resulted in bigger, and what are considered “better,” prisons. The most difficult question for advocates of prison abolition is how to establish a balance between reforms that are clearly necessary to safeguard the lives of prisoners and those strategies designed to promote the eventual abolition of prisons as the dominant mode of punishment. In other words, I do not think that there is a strict dividing line between reform and abolition. For example, it would be utterly absurd for a radical prison activist to refuse to support the demand for better health care inside Valley State, California’s largest women’s prison, under the pretext that such reforms would make the prison a more viable institution. Demands for improved health care, including protection from sexual abuse and challenges to the myriad ways in which prisons violate prisoners’ human rights, can be integrated into an abolitionist context that elaborates specific decarceration strategies and helps to develop a popular discourse on the need to shift resources from punishment to education, housing, health care, and other public resources and services.


Dylan: Speaking of developing a popular discourse, the Critical Resistance gathering in September 1998 seemed to pull together an incredibly wide array of prison activists — cultural workers, prisoner support and legal advocates, former prisoners, radical teachers, all kinds of researchers, progressive policy scholars and criminologists, and many others. Although you were quite clear in the conference’s opening plenary session that the purpose of Critical Resistance was to encourage people to imagine radical strategies for a sustained prison abolition campaign, it was clear to me that only a few people took this dimension of the conference seriously. That is, it seemed convenient for people to rejoice at the unprecedented level of participation in this presumably “radical” prison activist gathering, but the level of analysis and political discussion generally failed to embrace the creative challenge of formulating new ways to link existing activism to a larger abolitionist agenda. People were generally more interested in developing an analysis of the prison-industrial complex that incorporated the local work that they were involved in, which I think is an important practical connection to make. At the same time, I think there is an inherent danger in conflating militant reform and human rights strategies with the underlying logic of anti-prison radicalism, which conceives of the ultimate eradication of the prison as a site of state violence and social repression. What is required, at least in part, is a new vernacular that enables this kind of political dream. How does prison abolition necessitate new political language, teachings, and organizing strategies? How could these strategies help to educate and organize people inside and outside the prison for abolition?

Angela: In order to imagine a world without prisons — or at least a social landscape no longer dominated by the prison — a new popular vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned. Thus, one of the first challenges is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance. In the university, the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of prison studies can help to trouble the prevailing criminology discourses that shape public policy as well as popular ideas about the permanence of prisons. At the high school level, new curricula can also be developed that encourage critical thinking about the role of punishment. Community organizations can also play a role in urging people to link their demands for better schools, for example, to a reduction of prison spending.

Dylan: Your last comment suggests that we need to rupture the ideological structures embodied by the rise of the prison-industrial complex. How does prison abolition force us to rethink common assumptions about jurisprudence, in particular “criminal justice?”

Angela: Since the invention of the prison as punishment in Western society during the late 1700s, criminal justice systems have so thoroughly depended on imprisonment that we have lost the ability to imagine other ways to solve the problem of “crime.” One of the interesting contributions of prison abolitionists has been to propose other paradigms of punishment or to suggest that we need to extricate ourselves from the assumption that punishment must be a necessary response to all violations of the law. Reconciliatory or restorative justice, for example, is presented by some abolitionists as an approach that has proved successful in non-Western societies — Native American societies, for example — and that can be tailored for use in urban contexts in cases that involve property and other offenses. The underlying idea is that in many cases, the reconciliation of offender and victim (including monetary compensation to the victim) is a much more progressive vision of justice than the social exile of the offender. This is only one example — the point is that we will not be free to imagine other ways of addressing crime as long as we see the prison as a permanent fixture for dealing with all or most violations of the law.

http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/davisinterview.html

We are wondering how many people must die here in the Supermax?

“We are wondering how many people must die here in the Supermax before they find the source of this problem, these so-called ‘invesigations’ the department claims to have launched is like a dud firecracker. There will never be a ‘bang’ to solve this problem, not when you are investigating yourself.

We are wondering what happened with no investigation when the brother Lornell Evans died up here Oct. 2, 2005? We don’t even remember seeing an initial report in the newspaper from State Corrections Department John Dipko – is it because Mr. Evans is black and mr. Rundel is white? No, we are not playing the race card here, just laying out the evidence. We are all prisoners in my book, and every prisoner is my fellow brother of this ongoing struggle for peace & justice at the hand of the opprerssors. It could be because of liability, the way Mr. Lornell Evans died, and the way mr. Steven T. Rundel died.

After a major operation Mr. Evans was brought back here to the Supermax, when he should have stayed at the hospital where he could be watched by trained doctors & nurses, but here they just left him in a cell and after he (Mr. Evans) informed them that his stomach hurts and he could not eat, they never sent him back out to the hospital or no institution nurse at this facility came down to check him – the next day he was dead (R.I.P. Soljah).

Now since Mr. Steven T. Rundel died at his own hands, and was a convicted child molester, it is easier for the oppressors to drag his name through the mud, knowing the public will turn a blind eye to a child molester’s death. We can’t play into the oppressors’ hands, I’m on the inside and know better, we asked why have two people died here this year? Why wasn’t Mr. Evans sent back to the hospital? Why happened with the Jones-El and Johnson- v. Berge, et al. Class Action Agreement that all prisoners must be screened by a psychologist for any kind of mental illness before they are sent here to the Supermax – someone failed in this screening process.

Mr. Steven T. Rundel clearly had some kind of mental illness to take his life, he was not there a good month-and-a-half. John Dipko the Department spokesman said “the Department has launched an invetigation into how Rundel was able to construct a noose from his bedsheets and hanging himself without attracting notice of prison personnel.” Even a monkey will figure this out. Prison personnel don’t give a damn about prisoners’ well-being, and I’m in a room constructed the same way as Mr.Rundel’s and there’s no place in this room to hang yourself but on the bars on the door, and the crazy thing about it is that the bars play no purpose in supporting the door, they can cut the two bars off the door. This was an incident just waiting to happen – the doors on Alpha unit don’t have these bars on it, so why do these doors need them? This is monkey science. Take the bars off the doors, they don’t need them – their investigation will go nowhere.

We on the inside are callling for help. How many more must die, hear our voices, hear our cry comrades. The bars on the door are about five feet off the floor so Mr. Rundel had to kneel down with his feet still on the floor. Rounds: all staff are supposed to make their rounds on the range: white shirts, unit manager, nurses, social workers, and crisis workers. The white shirts, unit manager, nurses, social workers, and crisis workers might come on the unit and sign in at the sergeant cage, but no rounds on the ranges where the prisoners are at, unless it’s some kind of emergencyor a prisoner is getting suited up on. This will be the time you can catch them on the range – ‘some’ sergeants make rounds – not all – all frontlline officer will make rounds – and one psychologist, Dr. Hughes has for the last 30 days been making rounds once a week cell to cell asking prisoners if they are okay. No-one else is concerned. So this is how Mr. Rundel hung himself without attracting notice of prison personnel.”[January 1st, 2006)