Deepening the Debate over Mass Incarceration: An Interview

By Angela Y. Davis

Why did mass incarceration rise in the US and what are its political uses?

What we refer to as mass incarceration reflects the soaring prison population and the prison construction boom that coincided with the rise of global capitalism during the decade of the 1980s and the stronger and more effective incorporation of racism into the structure of capitalist profit.  Incarceration has been linked to practices of racism and to techniques of producing profit at least since the end of the Civil War, so when we attempt to understand the phenomenon of racialized mass incarceration, our analyses should move between the political economy of global capital during the last decades of the 20th Century and the political economy of post-slavery capitalism during the era following the Civil War.

During both historical periods, we witnessed an inordinate rise in the numbers of black people whose lives were dominated by apparatuses of punishment.  Moreover, during both historical periods systems of punishment were deployed in order to manage large populations of black people (and in the 1980s and 1990s, Latinos as well), whose social needs were being ignored by their societies.  At the same time indigenous people were being subjected to a range of repressions, including incarceration on reservations.  Punishment, in all these instances, emerged as a way to conceal and render invisible vast social problems that were a direct consequence of the economic changes of those eras. These systems of punishment proved to be quite profitable, as well.

The contemporary era is characterized by the overutilization of imprisonment to manage populations of young people of color – especially black men. Michelle Alexander has written about the role of the drug wars in justifying the mass incarceration of black men, which has recreated what she calls a racial class system that rivals that of the era of racial segregation. It is in many ways similar to the way state structures of punishment – especially the convict lease system — were used in the aftermath of the end of slavery.

It is impossible to narrate the story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialization of the South without taking into account the use of black convict labor to build and expand railroads, coal and iron ore mining, steel production, and other industries. We cannot forget that these industries were being developed on native people’s land. One hundred years later, the deindustrialization of the US economy, which resulted in the vast loss of job opportunities in manufacturing, left many young people of color without hope for the future. In both instances, criminalization as a means of controlling populations served both to produce greater profit and to conceal the very socio-economic conditions they were exploiting.

The rise of global capitalism in the 1980s was, by definition, not limited to the US Thus it is important not to limit our analyses of what has come to be called a prison industrial complex to the US.  While it may be the case that mass imprisonment has developed as a decidedly US problem and many carceral technologies, both historically and contemporaneously, have their origins in the US, overincarceration is increasingly becoming a problem in many parts of the world.  Incarceration as a strategy to address problems of the poverty and lack of social resources produced and exacerbated by processes of global finance – especially the transformation of economies in the global South under pressure of international financial agencies to move capital into more profitable sectors and thus away from subsidized housing, health care, education, etc. — has profoundly affected both the North and the South.  In the North, the flows of immigration produced by the movement away from subsistence economies and toward capitalist economies that cannot sustain populations in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia have been met with highly repressive strategies of detention and deportation.  One of the most profitable arenas for private prison and private security companies has been immigrant detention and deportation.  In the meantime, countries of the global South have embraced technologically sophisticated carceral methods as a way of ostensibly addressing the capitalist production of poverty.

What was the specific impact of these developments on women?

While men continue to constitute the vast majority of persons in prison, strategies of mass incarceration in relation to the rise of global capitalism also had a significant effect on women. The Sentencing Project indicates that between 1980 and 2010, the numbers of women incarcerated in state and federal institutions increased by 646 percent.  In 1980, there were a little over 15,000 women in prison, but in 2010, almost 113,000 women were behind bars, the majority of whom had been convicted of nonviolent offenses.  The Sentencing project further pointed out that if one includes the women held in city and county jails around the country, the number of women in prison rose to 205,000, with more than 712,000 on probation and 103,000 on parole.1  So at any given moment, there are more than one million women under the direct control of correctional agencies.  I mention these numbers because although they are significantly lower than the corresponding figures regarding male incarceration, they are far higher than one would imagine. And the increase in the rate of incarceration during this period, which reflects the era of the globalization of capital, has been considerably higher for women than for men.

But even if we could not point to such dramatic numbers as evidence of the troubling impact of mass incarceration on women, we would still learn a great deal about the relationship between capitalist economic systems and punishment practices by looking specifically at the situation of women. We would learn, for example, how punishment began to replace important social services, especially in the aftermath of the dismantling of the welfare system.  As much as there was discussion about the “end of welfare as we know it” during the Clinton administration, no one predicted that the withdrawing of the paltry safety net provided by the Aid to Families of Dependent Children program would result in ever larger numbers of women being sent to prison. Yet now the numbers of women behind bars is equivalent to the entire imprisoned population in the 1970s.  This has to do with the fact that women who are unable to find jobs, who can no longer depend on welfare, are compelled to participate in underground economies and are thus subject to instant criminalization when they are penalized for their poverty.

The increase in the numbers of women in prison has certainly also had an impact on the numbers of children who are forced to survive within the foster system.  It is interesting that the new program developed under the Obama Administration, Our Brothers’ Keepers, is putatively a response to the absence of fathers in poor black communities and other communities of color but almost entirely ignores the burden of criminalization on women.  Luke Harris, Professor of Political Science at Vassar, writes that

My vulnerability as a black boy was not first and foremost a function of my father’s absence. It was a function of the impossible conditions under which my mother and great-aunt had to parent. My mother was institutionalized at 13, and by 16, she was well on her way to addiction. She abandoned my brother and me to a welfare shelter, from which my great-aunt rescued us.

But that rescue did not set us on a path to stability and security. My great-aunt relied on welfare and side jobs as a domestic to keep food on the table.

Lots of black boys grow up under similar social circumstances — that is, in households with women struggling to make ends meet. Focusing on the personal responsibility of absent fathers while marginalizing the economic, social and spiritual needs of their very “present” mothers forwards the gendered idea that fathers are the solution not only to “the problem” of the black family, but also to “the problem” of the black community. This benign neglect treats girls and women as second-class citizens in the quest for social uplift, reversing the collective sensibility that has been key to our survival. No president, and certainly not a black president, should explicitly or implicitly advance such ideas.2

Moreover, the disproportionate numbers of imprisoned women who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder points to the way the punishment system has begun to serve as a substitute for mental health care.  Over three-quarters of imprisoned women, as compared to half of men, have been diagnosed with symptoms of mental health problems. This points not only to the way the absence of psychiatric and other forms of mental and emotional health services has been covered up by the criminalization of mental illness but also to how women – especially poor women of color, who have no access to health care – disproportionately suffer from this criminalization process.  It has been pointed out by a number of scholar/activists who work to reveal the convergences of disability and mass incarceration that the three largest psychiatric institutions in the US are county jails:  Cook County, Rikers, and LA County.  A recent and pioneering US/Canadian anthology is Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the U.S. and Canada.

Are there critical missing elements in the current emerging public discussion on mass incarceration? What are they and how do these better help us understand the crisis?

Given the fact that the prison crisis has finally been acknowledged by government officials and even by conservative politicians, it might be important to distinguish our approaches – especially if we consider ourselves abolitionists – from those endorsed by people in power.  Some months ago Eric Holder proclaimed: “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”  Holder was referring to the approximately six million people in the US whose felony convictions have resulted in their being permanently prevented from participating in national and local elections. Before considering the fact that the Attorney General has finally acknowledged – although people have been collectively demanding the franchise for felons and former felons for many years – that felony disenfranchisement is deeply anti-democratic, it should be pointed out that what is troubling about this statement is that it assumes the unquestioned legitimacy of preventing people in prison or on probation or parole from exercising the right to vote –just as we are encouraged to support the removal of “innocent” people from death row as a way of emphasizing that the “guilty” must really deserve to die.

Abolitionist approaches urge us to beware of the conformist and assimilationist logic that often undergirds what appears on its face to be progressive change. This is not to say that we do not support the turn that Holder has taken – or campaigns to remove “innocent” individuals from death row.  Rather it is to say that our positions should reflect more complicated analyses and critical support for these “reforms,” thus support always against a backdrop of continued critique – of critical resistance.

Some may find it surprising that Newt Gingrich recently said that “there is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and human potential.”   Gingrich, along with Jeb Bush and Grover Norquist, is one of the leading members of the organization “Right on Crime.” There has been a tradition of conservative engagement with prison issues, at least since the emergence of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship (which is critically examined by Andrea Smith in her book, Native Americans and the Christian Right: the Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliance).

As far as Gingrich and Norquist are concerned, it is about saving money and creating the small government that conservative Republicans advocate. The conservatives thus see mass incarceration quite simplistically as a project that continues to demand financial resources from the government, a project that is, at least in part, responsible for an increasingly big government. They are not thinking about the global impact of the prison industrial complex – about the way that the World Bank and the IMF have clearly encouraged the replacement of expensive and unprofitable social services with prisons, often for profit, in Africa for example.  As it turns out, the largest private company employer on the continent of Africa is a private security and private prison company – G4S.  The conservatives are certainly not thinking about reimagining and rebuilding a society that would not continue to profit from racism, class-bias, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, and war.

In other words, not only are they not thinking about abolition—obviously not – but I don’t think they are thinking about democracy either.          Norquist and Gingrich are calling for prison reform, and in fact, they propose carceral alternatives such as parole, probation, house arrest, GPS bracelets, and other modes of carcerality that are parasitically attached to the prison system – which rely on the prison system for their effectiveness.  Although they may be calling for a reduction of the actual prison population, they have no interest in beginning to undo the central role punishment plays in addressing problems of racism and poverty in this country.  The reforms they endorse have the potential of stronger systems of repression in the same way that prison reforms have, in fact, had the effect of rendering the institution of the prison a permanent and more determining feature of the social landscape.

Precisely because there was never a moment when the validity of imprisonment as a mode of addressing problems rooted in capitalism and racism was effectively challenged, we cannot continue to postpone those discussions today. The framework of “mass incarceration” by itself does not demand radical transformation.  It may call for reduced incarceration but not necessarily abolition of imprisonment as the mode of punishment on which our societies depend. Certainly figures like Gingrich and Norquist are not interested in such conversations – nor even Eric Holder.  But these are conversations that are absolutely essential if we want to transform the social, economic and political problems out of which strategies of overincarceration have emerged.

What are some of the lessons from the earlier analyses of the problem (as well as posited solutions) by Critical Resistance?

The emergence of Critical Resistance represented a decisive moment in the late twentieth-century development of anti-prison theories and practices. In 1998, when the conference took place that laid the foundation for the organization that continues to carry the name Critical Resistance, there was a pronounced lack of national and international communication among organizations that were engaged in radical anti-prison work, and we had not yet developed a radical discourse on prisons. On the one hand it was a difficult moment, because the law-and-order ideology was so powerful that few people who had not already been drawn toward the prison movement were willing to listen to arguments about prison abolition.

At the same time, it was an exciting moment for activists to experience real possibilities of change. The organizing committee decided that one of our primary goals would be to popularize the term “prison industrial complex,” which had been used by Mike Davis in an article about the transformation of the agricultural landscape in California into a terrain for prisons, already demonstrating their capacity to produce profit.  We decided to entitle the conference “Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex.”  The use of this language was the result of many long discussions about the work we wanted language to do.  Critical Resistance: because resistance was critical and because we wanted to be critical in our resistance.   Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, because we wanted to establish the “prison industrial complex” as an object of critique, a target of resistance, a target of critical resistance.  We thought that setting up the struggle in this way would help us to persuade greater numbers of people that prison abolition was a viable strategy. We were determined to delink the inevitable causal connection between crime and punishment.  We wanted people to link punishment with the capitalist economy – and with economic exploitation, racism, homophobia and other modes of repression.

We learned a great deal from the collective approach to organizing the conference – lessons we have been able to draw from during the last decade and a half of organizing mass movements.  For one, we took the organizing of this conference so seriously that we realized it would be at least two years in the making. By the time the gathering took place, we had done so much groundwork that when the people actually came together we felt like an already existing community. Thus I would say our patience helped us to build a conference that was able to produce an organization and that was lasting in its effects.  This patience was combined with the use of new strategies to contest the hierarchies that often assert themselves even when we are convinced that we are breaking down social and political hierarchies.  Perhaps most important was the involvement of prisoners and former prisoners in every stage of the organizing and in the conference itself – which meant using technologies of communication that allowed prisoners to participate in panels via amplified telephonic statement and conversations.

We learned far too many lessons – especially about how to cross borders normally preventing academics, activists, artists, advocates from engaging in significant conversation – to detail them in this short interview.  But I think that the extended discussions we had on the visual images we were going to use encapsulate our approach.  In the initial discussions about the visual image we wanted to use, there were, of course, suggestions to use different configurations of bars and/or chains.  But such visuals had become so normalized that some of us felt that they would send the message to people that they already knew enough about prisons to not be interested in our conference.  What we wanted to do with the visuals was to provoke people to question the build-up of prison populations, the increasing profitability of imprisonment, and indeed the necessity of prisons.

After much discussion, we decided to take our dilemma to an artist by the name of Rupert Garcia, who had a long history of producing political posters.  When we explained what we wanted the image to accomplish, he thought for a while, then responded that he thought he had just the image that we might use – it was an enormous eye against an orange background that could be either a sunrise or sunset.  Rupert thought about this eye as the eye of surveillance but also the eye that glimpsed new possibilities on the horizon.  As it turned out, wherever the image was posted, people rarely walked by without inspecting it more closely.  It demanded attention.  The caption under the image was: Prisons. Surveillance. Punishment. Repression.  Then Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, A National Conference and Strategy Session.   With this image we wanted to remind people that when they assumed they understood the work that prisons do, they were absolutely wrong.  In fact, we needed to rethink the role of imprisonment and carceral strategies more generally with the aim of recognizing the damage that prisons have done throughout our histories, especially in the aftermath of slavery and imagining not only more effective ways of addressing what we call “crime,” but more effective means of responding to the myriad social problems – the lack of jobs, housing, education, health care, etc. – that jails and prisons attempt unsuccessfully to address.  In other words, we needed to think about abolition, democracy, and socialism.




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