The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation With Angela Davis

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 untheorized 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.

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