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Angela Davis: Race, Class and the philosophy of ‘Crime and Punishment’ - By Jude Mckechnie

Updated: Mar 7

In recent months, people the world over are experiencing a rapid and unforeseen reorganisation of society due to COVID-19. Almost overnight we witnessed the closure of the hospitality and service industry, the loss of thousands of jobs and a shrinking of the economy which continues to spell worse things up ahead for many of the most vulnerable in society. History shows that at times of economic downturn, combined with an increased reliance on social welfare and the public sector; the structures which hold up the system suddenly don’t seem so solid.


The pressure applied by the conditions of the pandemic have revealed how brittle and tenuous the political and social arena really is. The reliance of politicians on insidious and divisive racism, to divert attention away from their mismanagement of the pandemic itself, is blatant to see. Here in the UK, we are already hearing the politics of scapegoating from the Tories; seemingly hellbent on a continued campaign against immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Yet, while they posit these vulnerable groups as a threat to public resources and a burden on the taxpayer, they are offering billion-pound bailouts to big corporations. The Sunday Times published an article at the beginning of this month; stating that more than 50 large companies had tapped the Bank of England’s Covid-19 bailout scheme for more than £16 billion. Seems there is enough money to go around after all. What we are therefore witnessing is the establishment profiteering off of a divisive environment which pits poor people against each other for its own gain. Despite this, more optimistically, there has also been an outpouring of solidarity through the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests; campaigns to support refugees and to oppose their mistreatment by governments, as well as an overdue appraisal of how deeply entrenched racism is in the very fabric of our modern life. People have been coming out in their numbers across the globe to show solidarity after the violent murder of George Floyd. In recent months this has turned a spotlight on our institutions, radicalising a whole section of society. People can see the ways in which the politics of the everyday has normalised racism and stacked challenges up against people on the breadline and are demanding change.


Angela Davis, one of the most outspoken, articulate writers and activists of her generation, has consistently found ways of finding the words to express how our social lives are dominated by the prejudiced institutions which frame our society. In her book ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ she asks us to question our assumptions about crime and punishment and its relationship with race and class. She emphasises that in the U.S, people from the Black, Latino and Native American community, have a far greater chance of going to prison than getting a decent education. This shows that there is a racial and class-bias which structures the prison system, and which needs to be dismantled across the world.


The power of this book is that it challenges our perceptions of justice by asking: what are the historical circumstances surrounding the criminalisation of certain groups of people in society? What is the impact of social degradation on the aspirations of young people today from racially oppressed groups? Davis highlights that the prison system represents a public willingness to allow people of colour to be relegated to an existence marked by authoritarian discipline and violence. She argues that the forced captivity and seclusion of prisoners produces severe mental instability which does nothing to rehabilitate people back into society following prison sentences. When we acknowledge that there has been a huge surge in the number of people incarcerated, a populace now over a staggering ten million worldwide, there has to be serious questions about the efficiency and role of a program of incarceration.


A ‘tough on crime’ culture which has been carted out since Reagan’s presidency in America; has seen a rise in the incarceration of people from marginalised and stigmatised communities. The intersection between poverty, race and imprisonment reveals that the prison has become a site in which ‘undesirables’ are deposited. The myth that there has been an increase and expansion of the prison system because there has been a sharp rise in crime, is simply not true. Davis explores how in the U.S, racism and the privatisation of the prison system has instead been driven by an economic incentive to build prisons and incarcerate people. In America, prisons have become producers of corporate profits, with the government being paid by private companies for each inmate. As imprisoned bodies – the majority of which are bodies of colour – prisoners become sources of profit in the American prison complex where they produce all kinds of commodities. This means there is an economic motivation to lock people up; the longer the sentence, the better this is for profits. America has become a blueprint for many prison complexes worldwide which sketches out a vision of the future where prisoners are forced to labour for corporate gain, all the while “devouring public funds, which might otherwise be available for social programs such as education, housing, childcare facilities, drug [rehabilitation] programs.” When we look at the history of the prison and its expansion, it’s relationship with race goes right back to its foundations. In America, Davis traces the link between slavery and the early penitentiary system, showing that the prison became a modern form of slavery. Men and women, freed by the abolition of slavery after the civil war, faced incarceration for crimes which did not apply to white people; the 'black codes' seeing them imprisoned once more and leased out to do hard labour in chain gangs. A legacy of racism and the criminalisation of black bodies which has never been debunked is still being reproduced and reflected in the criminal justice system today. Davis sums it up when she says: “we can hardly move in the direction of justice and equality in the twenty-first century if we are unwilling to recognize the enormous role played by this system in extending the power of racism and xenophobia.” While the media tries to represent racism, as Davis puts it, “as an unfortunate aberration of the past that has been relegated to the graveyard of history;” it has not been. It doesn't take a microscope to see that the contemporary structures, attitudes and behaviours which make up our society, have within them congealed forms of racism which operate in almost every facet of life. Davis makes a strong case for the abolition of prisons altogether as an essential part of ridding society of racism once and for all. However, prisons are seen as such a naturalised part of our social landscape that it is difficult to imagine. This is because we are rarely asked to envisage a society which doesn’t rely on locking people away, separating them from their family and their communities, as a way to maintain social order. When I first read this text, a world without prisons struck me as an impossibility, and that is just the problem. The way that ideologically we connect 'crime and punishment' in everyday conversation and in society at large, contributes to the idea that there is a causal relationship between them: that punishment naturally follows trespass of laws. Not questioning this idea means we are relieved of the important task of thinking about what social issues are perpetuated by the police and the prison system as a whole. Is it possible for us, as a community, to creatively explore new ways where justice is no longer anchored to the prison system that we have today? Angela Davis offers an alternative that we should consider. She advocates for the removal of prisons through a constellation of different strategies which work in tandem to reshape society. Her vision is one that is perhaps not full proof, but it is one which puts people as the central concern rather than profit. Her alternatives to prison are practical and supportive: the revitalisation of education at all levels, a health system which provides mental and physical care at the point of demand, and one which does not suggest racial and class disparities in the care available. She argues for the decriminalisation of drug possession so that we can support and reintegrate people with addictions back into the community. Perhaps most importantly; she asks us to do the psychological work needed to imagine a justice system which is based on reparation and reconciliation rather than vengeance. All of these initiatives work against imprisonment, rethinking how we tackle crime. She paints a picture of an alternative world; one in which we defund the police force and invest in social welfare and education instead.


Would a world without prisons mean one which has seen the redistribution of power? Does it herald in a world where we have broken down the class, race and gender oppressions at work in our social relations? I don't know. All I know for sure is that we should take seriously the implications of a racist and class-biased system of justice; which is undeniable in the face of police brutality, racial profiling and the systematic targeting of people because of the colour of their skin. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to name only some of the highest profile cases, show that the police force is structurally racist. People are in prisons across the world, are detained in detention centres and supermax prisons, simply because they are not white, and that’s a fact. Through looking at who makes up our prison populations today, it is evident that race and class are the primary determinants of who is a criminal and who is not. That isn't just. Davis’ strategies emphasise the advantages of approaches to justice which ask why do terrible things happen in the first place? What might we do differently to make sure they don't happen at all? - By Jude Mckechnie

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