Angela Davis, 'The Prison-Industrial-Complex'

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Review by Ippy D

This interesting, engaging and often humorous CD is the edited recording of a lecture given in the summer of 1997 at Colorado College in the US by radical activist and academic Angela Davis.

At the core of this fairly simple lecture is the exposing of links between capitalism, racism and the prison system - and this is done fairly eloquently on the whole.

Drawing on her own prison experience and the experiences of her friends and comrades, combined with a professed ex-communist turned-socialist, feminist analysis, Davis highlights the relationship between the privatisation of the prison system in the US and the ever-increasing number of prisoners, set against the backdrop of falling crime rates.

One of the best things she does at the beginning of her paper is to make it clear that she believes that while many people end up in prison for overtly political acts, the majority are pushed into the category of “criminal” through their attempts at surviving under modern capitalism. And while acknowledging that some people are violent and that many people really do need help, Davis also argues that it is the victims of capitalism - ie the poor and the conned (including shoplifters, beggars, thieves, dealers, prostitutes, “illegals” etc) and their predominantly, but by no means exclusively, nonviolent crimes (particularly in the case of women “criminals”) - who make up the overwhelming majority of the US prison population.

In this paper Davis manages to touch on a huge range of social and ideological ills and relate them all - sometimes a little tenuously - back to the prison system. Though perhaps she is not so much relating them to prison, more prison to them, contextualising the issue of prison within modern capitalist society.

So she manages to fit in all kinds of things! For example: the use of prisoners as slave-labour - manufacturing goods for the benefit of private companies; the criminalisation of asylum seekers, immigrants and the domestic black population (a shocking one-third of black men aged between 18 and24 are either in prison or within the criminal justice system in the US); the relationship between welfare cuts and the increase in the number of women in prison; the relationship between the war on (some) drugs and the profits of pharmaceutical giants. She goes on to name those who she believes are the real criminals - those who exploit and torture workers in so-called “developing” countries - and who never spend a day behind bars - while the numbers of black people imprisoned back in the US for petty crimes just keeps rising.

Ultimately Davis calls for her audience (presumably originally predominantly students, and by listening, now us) to build visible links with prisoners and the prison community, to oppose private-prison building and, in a roundabout way, to acknowledge our fears about crime and face up to who the real criminals are. After all, who should we be more afraid of: the black youth hanging out in the park, or corporate America - creating poverty, misery and war - globally?

An enjoyable, thought-provoking and - at 54 minutes - well timed, CD, with listings for several US groups working on prison and related issues.

Topics: Economics, Prison
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