September 20, 2007

Angela Davis Presents Paradox of Prison and Democracy

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Angela Davis, a scholar and an activist of social justice and equality, presented a lecture on Tuesday evening entitled, “The Prison: A Sign of U.S. Democracy?” to a large audience in Sage Chapel. Presented by the Africana Studies and Research Center, Davis’ lecture discussed the paradoxical relationship between incarceration and democracy and examined the role of the prison system in the United States.
Davis, currently a professor of history of consciousness and feminist studies at U.C. Santa Cruz and the author of eight books, spoke about the institution of prison as a form of punishment as well as the lack of liberties present among the incarcerated. Prison, according to Davis, is a negative affirmation of democracy.
Davis spoke about the 2000 presidential election in which Florida’s electoral votes determined the winner between President George W. Bush and former vice president Al Gore. Bush won by a total of 537 votes which prompted Davis to ask the question, “What might have happened if prisoners had the right to vote?” Elections, Davis described, are a central ingredient of democracy. Once a felony is committed, a person is denied the right to vote for the rest of his or her life. A total of 600,000 people in Florida who were not in jail could not vote due to a felony conviction.
“You are in a state of imprisonment when you are not behind bars. You are civilly dead,” Davis said.
Davis used this point to explain how our lives are directly affected by the prison system. “Where might we be now? Hopefully, not in Iraq.”
Davis posed the question, “How can a person possibly be rehabilitated by an institution only interested in disciplining?” Davis spent a year and a half in prison after being on the FBI’s top ten most wanted list. She was acquitted in 1972 and continued ued with her social activism with a focus on how prison that was meant to “refashion” and “reshape” prisoners did not effectively provide rehabilitation. According to Davis, rehabilitation is an alternative to the U.S. prison system.
The racial differences of the imprisoned population were another key point of the lecture. Of the 2.2 million people in jail, over 1 million are black. Davis said this is not entirely because black people commit more crime; rather, surveillance plays a major role in determining who is imprisoned. Davis told a story about a black man who was stopped three times in Ithaca on his way to Cornell to see her lecture. She said that the reason people end up in prison usually has little to do with their behavior or the crimes they have committed.
She spoke about a study that was done in which black and white people both filled out very similar job applications. White people who said they had been convicted of a felony were called back at the same rate as black people who had clean records.
“Black men are essentially born with the stigma of a felony conviction,” Davis said.
Davis said that improving the education system would help bring about change. “A focus on the educational system could go a long way. Children don’t learn how to value knowledge,” she said.
She also said that the internal workings of the prison system produce racial inequalities.
“Children [who are] part of poor communities; of color; go to elementary school thinking that they are bodies and souls to be disciplined.”
Some lecture attendees were impressed with Davis’s speech.
“I thought the issues she brought up were important for us to hear about,” said Saraya McPherson ’11. “I feel that her commentary on racial issues in America were very valid and quite observant.”
For Rachel Rasbach, a teacher in the Ithaca School District, Davis’ lecture may impact the way she approaches teaching.
“I found Davis’ lecture inspiring,” said Rasbach. “I can reflect on being a teacher. I have a responsibility to educate students and I can see a connection between the two institutions,” she said.