Injustice In The American Penal System
by Prema Oza
April 17, 2000
‘Teacher,’ writer, strong, black woman, activist, leader, wrongfully imprisoned prisoner – all labels used to describe Angela Davis, past and present. Of them all, perhaps activist is the most appropriate, as is witnessed by her life of struggle, injustice, and by her ardent desire to help others. In an era with few worthy icons, she stands virtually alone.
Davis was in Detroit in February, speaking at Wayne State University on behalf of various campus groups. In a stirring lecture titled, “Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex,” she painstakingly outlined the long and sordid past of prison systems in the United States. To the average, informed Canadian, it is clear that these conditions sadly mirror our own system. Or, at the very least, the US scenario is where we could be headed pretty damn soon, as we as a nation begin to toy with the idea of privatization.
“Privatization of health care, education and punishment” go hand-in-hand for state legislators and lawmakers, according to Davis. Other similarities exist, such as the growing rate of aboriginal, non-white, and other socially stratified men and women. Another alarming similarity is the rise in drug-related sentencing in Canada. According to Davis, “the US imprisons more citizens proportionately than any other country in the world. By February 15, two million people will be incarcerated in federal, state, and county jails.”
The over-capacity audience was led through an intricate and unscrupulous maze of covert prison ideology and the skewed priorities of correctional facilities in the United States: “confinement,” “containment,” dehumanization and rehabilitation according to “societal norms”, rather than education, actual rehabilitation and eventual release for non-dangerous offenders. As a frequent visitor to correctional facilities to do outreach with inmates, she also highlighted what she has seen firsthand: the gender component of incarceration, that the numbers for women in prison “are increasing at a rate higher than men.”
Davis knows all too well the stark reality of life inside the American corrections establishment. As a member of the Black Panther Party, she was falsely accused and imprisoned on charges of murder and conspiracy, only to win an eventual acquittal and release after public protest in 1972.
Incarceration wasn’t always the American way when it came to criminal deterrence. As the economy became further de-industrialized, Davis says, the economy adjusted itself accordingly, and government saw less of a need to preoccupy itself with matters of low political relevance, such as social spending, and more with issues like corporate investment, structural adjustment programs (SAP) and trade negotiations with equally suspect nations.
In the post civil war era, “the criminal legal system developed along the side of segregation; and the reservation system; and the development of the industrial proletariat and rising immigration. The US annexed Hawai’i [and] Puerto Rico, and thwarted Cuban independence.” In the spirit of “Reagonomics” during the latter half of the 1990’s, a so-called “war on drugs” took place, and prisons in America burgeoned under the strain.
In this new era of global capitalism, Davis made a strong argument for the virtual cottage industries thriving inside prisons in North America. Such industries are “extremely profitable” and “analogous to Asian sweatshops”. Today, prison industries are “more profitable than unionized labor” in a way that moving production south was cheaper for multinational corporations. Indeed, Davis is correct in assuming that as long as corporate might is right in North America, “the power of corporations will rise to be an unbridling power.”
To further exemplify the state view of women, Davis outlines how, historically, women in prisons were women who did not conform to societal norms, as was illustrated in the recent fact based Hollywood film, Girl Interrupted. Unlike men, women were seen as restorative. They were fallen women with a remote possibility of being reprogrammed into being good wives and mothers. Many of their crimes were considered to be of a sexual or moral nature, such as premarital or biracial sex and drunkenness. Now the tendency has become more standardized – confinement and containment of the general female population also, argues Davis.
Davis uses the example of welfare mothers as a further example of abject vilification of this segment of society. “The campaign against welfare mothers is about a minute part of the federal budget, and [yet] became a subject of debate. How is it that black [and] Latina women are responsible for all sorts of things, like crime? So the welfare system was destablized. And this corresponds with women in prisons because women with families, with jobs earning minimum wage [without adequate] child care, are more likely to work within illegal economies like drugs or sex services.”
The majority of women incarcerated during the Reagan era were convicted on drug-related charges. Why? They had not hurt anyone? Answer: unlike their dealing partners, they had no one to “give up” to prosecutors, and subsequently served the full extent of their time, according to Davis, while the men who offered up everyone they knew and generally got out earlier.
Davis also categorically slammed the death penalty policies of a few determined yet clueless states in the US, including that of Presidential hopeful George Bush Jr. Some states have, however, called for a moratorium on executions as there have been cases of wrongful deaths of innocent inmates.
“After executions, it was a big story of one person. Now we have an assembly line of death,” said Davis, “women are being executed. I really hope in the year 2000 we can save Mumia Abu Jamal,” she added. The audience responded with applause.
Davis foresees the mass, cross-sector demonstration in Seattle as “a big new era in activism. What I’m asking you to do is look at the present as history. When I began to look at the history of prisons in the US, and [at] women, it made me look clearly at what’s happening today. It wasn’t until the late 18th, early 19th century that prisons began to take shape as the dominant mode of punishment. Now we can’t think about crime except in relation to prisons, or punishment except in relation to crime.”
An example of extremist perceptions of punishment would be the growing trend toward “super max” institutions, Davis said, where solitary confinement is a reality for the general population — sort of a “recapitulation of solitary time”. It does not rehabilitate the prisoner, it serves no real purpose other than to drive the prisoner “insane”, thereby further irrevocably cutting himm off from society; “and yet it is a [viable] punishment strategy.” No doubt because, among other things, recruitment of correctional personnel is at an all time low for obvious reasons.
“Our communities are being devoured by systems that [are] profiting from oppression, ” Davis said, “profiting under an expanding prison industrialization. “ She wondered out loud why there has been no enormous mass uprising.
Prema Oza is a Canadian print journalist and radio personality who has appeared in or on various newspapers, magazines and call letters in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor and Detroit, Michigan. She is currently pursuing a degree in Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.