Scholar-activist Angela Davis delivered a passionate, thought-provoking lecture on prison abolition to a packed Watson Theater Tuesday evening.
Davis, a visiting professor of Women and Gender Studies and African-American Studies, titled her lecture “21st Century Abolition and the Challenge of Feminism.” It focused on anti-prison arguments, drawing from the works of sociologist Thomas Mathiesen and Fay Honey Knopp, a “Jewish, Quaker, Pacifist, feminist activist.”
“Both of these people make major contributions to our understandings of the possibility of a world without prisons, and both continue to be considered as theorists and activists who helped spawn a 20th century movement that is attempting to expand its reach and influence in the 21st century,” Davis said.
Drawing from Mathiesen’s work with “anti-prison” movements and Knopp’s feminist-inspired book, “Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists,” Davis attempted to answer what she viewed as the pressing question when exploring our country’s penitentiary system.
“The question is how to be attentive of to the conditions under which people are compelled to live and how to engage in struggles that are designed to transform those conditions without creating a better prison … without creating a prison that will be more likely to be perceived as permanent,” Davis said. She added that our country’s prisons are “the contradiction between rehabilitation and racialized violence.”
Davis pushed for Mathiesen’s concept of “non-reformist reform,” which she described as “a notion of reform that furthers abolition; a reform that does not help to entrench the institution it is attempting to reform.” For example, Mathiesen was in favor of the elimination of the concept of bail, not because he wanted to eliminate the possibility of prisoners being freed, but rather because he believed that “everyone should be able to get out on a recognizance,” not just those given the option of an affordable bail and those with access to funds.
Some found the technicalities of Davis’ lecture to be confusing, but enlightening. Sam Myers, a sophomore exercise science major, attended the lecture because she is in an introductory level Women and Gender Studies course.
“Honestly, it was over my head a bit. It took a lot of brainpower to understand, but she was brilliant,” Myers said.
Davis made parallels between imprisonment and our country’s schools.
“We tend to think of prisons as something that happens ‘over there,’ but it has affected the culture in profound ways,” she said. “There are elementary schools with armed security guards.”
“I would go so far as to say we need to abolish the current education system … it is so broken,” she said.
Jessica Bacon, a doctoral student in Special Education and Disability Studies, connected most with Davis’ remarks on the similarities between imprisonment and how we govern our schools.
“Surveillance is becoming more intense in schools, and reform isn’t the answer,” Bacon said.
Bringing the discussion even closer to home, Davis remarked on how the congregate model for prisons originated in nearby Auburn, N.Y.
With 2.5 million people behind bars, the debate over the existence and reformation of prisons is relevant in this country. According to Davis, incarceration ties in to a fundamental value that our country is based on.
“Imprisonment is the quintessentially democratic form of punishment because it consists of divesting people of rights and liberties that they are only able to claim under democracy," Davis said.
Davis drew such a large crowd that students filled the floors and aisle of the theater. (Photo: Allie Hootnick)