Criminal injustice

Jun 23, 1999 at 12:00 am

"How can we imagine an abolitionism for the prison-industrial complex in the way that 19th century activists imagined the abolition of the slave economy?"

That question, in one form or another, provided the thread that wove through much of the three-day long ninth National Roundtable for Women in Prison that opened last Friday in Ann Arbor.

"We can’t just capitulate to the idea that the reason there are prisons is because people commit crime, and the reason there are more prisons is because more people are committing crime, and the reason there are more women’s prisons is because women are now liberated and can commit crimes like men," activist Angela Davis told the crowd.

The remark elicited brief laughter, but Davis appeared serious, saying, "These are some of the arguments that we hear."

More than 200 people attended the conference, some coming from as far away as Ghana and Botswana. They attended numerous workshops related to women in prison, including information on everything from current legislation relevant to Michigan’s imprisoned women to alternatives to prison for managing anti-social behavior.

A former member of the Black Panther Party who was jailed for more than a year in the 1970s before being acquitted of murder and kidnapping charges, Davis is now a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz and a leader in what has come to be known as the "critical resistance" movement.

It is a movement that takes aim at an ever-expanding "prison-industrial complex" that corporations increasingly employ as low-cost factories to fatten the bottom line. The government, exploiting fear of crime to justify building even more prisons, uses resources that otherwise could be funding education, housing, health care and welfare programs. Meanwhile the building and running of prisons has created a multibillion-dollar businesses with political clout.

It is a view that might be dismissed as overheated rhetoric were it not for the numbers behind the words. The United States is now boasting gulag-like incarceration rates, with its prison population more than doubling between the end of 1985 and mid-1998. According to the Department of Justice, during that 12-year period, the number of inmates per 100,000 people jumped from 313 to 668. At last count, there were 1.8 million people behind bars in America. More than half of them were African-Americans.

Assaults behind bars

Several groups at the conference examined the challenges of dealing with sexual abuse by corrections employees inside prisons, something for which the Michigan Department of Corrections has recently come under fire.

The department is still being sued in federal court on behalf of 32 current and former prisoners. Meanwhile, a proposed settlement in a related case brought against Michigan by the U.S. Justice Department is pending before a federal judge. At the state level, the same 32 plaintiffs have a suit on hold while the MDOC challenges an appellate court’s decision that the state’s civil rights law applies to prisoners.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, was slated to speak at the Ann Arbor roundtable but was prevented from attending by other obligations, said a member of his staff who attended the conference. Conyers has introduced legislation that would financially penalize state governments for failing to implement policies geared toward protecting prisoners from sexual assault by prison employees. "We cannot expect other countries to uphold internationally accepted standards for human rights while we are guilty of violating them ourselves," Conyers said in a press release. "The example we set in maintaining this double standard diminishes our claim to be the great world leader in the protection of human rights that we should be."

Profits in crime

One workshop gave former prisoners from Michigan and elsewhere a chance to discuss the challenges of re-entering life on the outside, including finding housing and employment. Although many conference participants spoke of dealing with the day-to-day hardships imprisoned women face, they kept coming back to the theme of critical resistance, the prison-industrial complex and the need for a broader strategy for change.

"This is a movement that’s time has come," said Ellen Barry, who, along with Davis, helped start the critical resistance movement. At a national conference on critical resistance in San Francisco last September, thousands of people began a dialogue scrutinizing the increasing incarceration of people in the United States. Critical resistance activists note that the expansion of the U.S. prison system benefits companies that are taking advantage of cheap prison labor. Into that picture creeps increasing talk of privatization, which threatens to put the fate of the prison population more solidly in the hands of private industry.

Linking crime to legitimate corporate profits, they argue, provides more and more of an incentive for the nation’s — and indeed the world’s — powerful and wealthy businesses to find ways to sustain crime, or at least incarceration, in the United States.

Barry, the founder of the advocacy group Legal Services for Prisoners With Children and a MacArthur "genius" award recipient, said the San Francisco event had such an impact that it resulted in approximately 4,000 students walking out of their high schools shortly after the conference in protest, demanding that government officials build more schools instead of prisons.

Critical resistance advocates point to relatively recent legal trends that are helping to add more and more people to the captive workforce, such as stiffer penalties, three-strike laws, the trying of juveniles as adults, and mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

Charlene Snow, one of the organizers of the Ann Arbor roundtable, says: "Judges don’t have the discretion in sentencing that they used to have, particularly when it comes to drug offenses. ... Now what’s happening is people are spending more time in there and they’re not coming out."

Davis says critical resistance is trying to give the words "prison-industrial complex" a kind of currency that would allow people to talk about the real issues surrounding prisons instead of focusing on the fear of crime that permeates so much of today’s political rhetoric.

She and other organizers aim to achieve enough momentum to force a radical shift in dialogue about U.S. prisons.

"It is possible to put these issues on the agenda," Davis said. "It is possible to talk about the exploitation of prison labor in a different way. About the destruction of families that happens, especially as the result of the imprisonment of women. The way in which communities of color are increasingly criminalized — that is to say not only locked up, but criminalized and viewed in general as people who if they are not in prison, deserve to be there," Davis said. "It is also a period in which we can talk about the way in which social resources are increasingly shifting from the kinds of services people need to survive and lead decent lives to punishment and social control."

In addition to critical resistance, longtime civil rights activist Grace Boggs of Detroit argued for another relatively new concept: "restorative justice," referring to a system based in village cultures that places responsibility for dealing with anti-social behavior in the hands of the community rather than the government. Based on rehabilitation rather than retribution, this would include criminals making restitution to victims. Boggs said various U.S. cities are moving in that direction with community-based programs.

Building momentum

Related to alleviating overblown fear of crime is the question, brought up several times at the conference, whether people can assume that all of the women in prison really belong there, considering that many are being punished for economically motivated, nonviolent crimes. The increasing number of women in prison has also been linked to welfare reform.

Widney Brown, of the international organization Human Rights Watch, told participants in workshop Saturday on human rights violations of female prisoners, that in American culture the incarcerated population has been so dehumanized that talking about prisoners’ rights is like "spitting into the wind."

"In our society, at some base level, we have completely lost our sense of how serious … deprivation of liberty is. We don’t think its enough to lock someone up anymore. We don’t think that’s punishment. We have to lock them up, abuse them, dehumanize them and take away any programs that might help them."

Conference-goers acknowledged that changing public opinion about prisons and prisoners will take a lot of hard work, but expressed the hope of building on the momentum that began with last year’s national critical resistance conference.

In her opening speech, Davis emphasized the role of activism in making that change: "We need to believe in our own ability to contest what is a growing threat to all of our communities. And it’s a threat to democracy in general. It is important to believe in our ability to bring about a change in the way imprisoned women are viewed or are not viewed and therefore are rendered invisible. I think this is the meaning of the theme of this roundtable: Breaking Down the Walls, Communities in the New Millennium."