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Political activist Davis critical of prison system

Angela Davis says today's prisons frighten her. "I'm really scared," she said, "because it seems as if most people in this country are unwilling to think critically about what is happening to the penal system."

Historically, the prison system was not always used as a way to address crime, said Davis, who spoke October 16 at von der Mehden Recital Hall. "When the penitentiary came into being in the beginning of the 19th century it was seen as a response to the brutality of corporal punishment," she said.

Davis, one of the most famous radicals of the 1960s and 1970s, knows the prison system from the inside. Beginning in 1970, she spent 18 months in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy.

Prison, Davis said, mostly teaches prisoners how to be better criminals. "We had lots of time on our hands," she said. "One of the things that the women used to do is teach each other the 'skills' that they came into the prison with. That's what happens there."

Davis, now a professor in the history of consciousness department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that too often prisoners are treated inhumanely.

"The public is apparently calling out for punishment and retribution," she said. "Now is a time to begin to think beyond the prison, and think of other alternatives, particularly when we consider the extent to which the prison-industrial complex or the punishment industry is thoroughly infused with racism."

In 1997, there are 1.8 million people in state and federal prisons and county jails. More than half of them are black, Davis said. Almost one-third of young black men aged 20 to 29 are incarcerated or under surveillance by the criminal justice system.

Davis did not suggest that a lot of people of color in prison have not committed a crime. But there are studies, she said, that show that almost everyone has committed a crime at one time or another. "So we have to ask the question, 'What determines who gets marked as criminal?'" Davis said.

"This process of criminalization, particularly of young black and Latino men, is something that has become ... a part of the collective psyche of this country," she said. "People - and this is black people included - when they see young black men on the street somewhere, they get scared."

When discussing "the war against crime," no one talks about white-collar crime, corporate crime or government or police crime, Davis said. "The war against crime" is a specific kind of battle that is associated with people of color, she maintained.

The United States and other industrialized countries are experiencing what some people call an imprisonment binge, Davis adds. Between 1980 and 1995, the federal and state prison population increased by 235 percent.

The prison-industrial complex is similar to the military-industrial complex, she said.

"Corporations have begun to see the war against crime as profitable in the same way that the war in Vietnam was profitable," Davis said. "Private corporations have even less of a stake in treating people humanely particularly if they see prisoners as commodities and a source of profit."

Luis Mocete