Activist Angela Davis calls for penal reform

Angela Davis, social activist and self-identified communist, visited the College on Wednesday, Feb. 20 to lecture on “Race, Gender and Social Justice in the American Penal System.”

The talk was held in the Kendall Hall Auditorium as part of the celebration of Black History Month and was followed by a Q-and-A session.

“We chose to bring Angela Davis to campus because she is literally a living historical figure who is also a distinguished scholar,” Christine Cullen, Student Government Association (SGA) president, said. “We thought that it would be exciting to bring her on to raise issues around social justice and open discussion between students.”

In her lecture, Davis said the American prison system is responsible for upholding many of the racial- and gender-based injustices present during slavery.

“We treat slavery like we treat the genocidal colonization of North America, like it never really happened,” Davis said. “We treat it more like a nightmare than a social and historical reality. The institution of the prison tells us that this nightmare continues to haunt us.”

According to Davis, 2.2 million people are in prison on any given day in the United States, while approximately 13 million people spend time in prison every year. In fact, Davis said 13 percent of black people in the country are subject to felony disenfranchisement, meaning they are deprived of their right to vote due to a criminal record. Their arrests, she said, are due to disproportionate surveillance and profiling of black people.

“What is this democracy that uses prison as a central defense of democracy?” Davis asked. “It deprives you of your rights.”

Davis said the abolition of the prison institution in the United States would solve the problem of felony disenfranchisement. She said racial and gender-based justice cannot be achieved in the penal system without eliminating the “prison industrial complex” as a form of punishment.

Instead of being imprisoned, Davis said, the country should implement “restorative and reparative justice.” According to her, felons should have the opportunity to receive educations and become respected members of society. She said more value should be placed on education at a young age to prevent crime.

“We begin to wonder what might have happened if (felons) were exposed to the joys of learning as children,” Davis said. “They may have not begun to go down that trajectory (to prison).”

Davis also compared the mentality behind American prisons to that behind the institution of slavery. She said people who are not in prison enjoy their freedom at the expense of those who are deprived of their rights in prison.

“The prison serves as negative evidence that those of us in the free world can tell we are free, just like white people could tell they were free by looking at slaves,” Davis said.

“I think that the most exciting thing about having Angela Davis on our campus had to be the discussion it started between students,” Cullen said. “I heard conversations on topics I never heard students address outside of the campus before. Students sometimes compare (the College) to a bubble. I think it is by bringing different people with diverse views to campus that we burst, or at least expand, that bubble and give students the opportunity to look at things from a new perspective.”

Davis’ lecture was sponsored by SGA, the Black Student Union, the School of Culture and Society, the office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, the Minority Executive Council, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the USA Studies Program, the desparts of African-American Studies, History, Sociology and Anthropology, English, Philosophy and Religion, Chi Upsilon Sigma, and the Center for the Study of Social Justice.