On October 23rd, at Washington University’s Botanical Center, Angela Davis addressed a crowd of contributors to University Beyond Bars, an educational initiative for prisoners at Monroe Correctional Institute (where Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns are imprisoned). This was a significant event, highlighted by Davis’s trenchant and comprehensive talk to a rapt audience. For those who were not alive during the 1960’s, Davis was both a communist and a Black Panther who participated in educational initiatives for young African Americans back in the day. Always brilliant and outspoken, she is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The evening began with a speech by Stevan Dozier, a ‘three striker’ who was miraculously freed from prison in 2009 through the personal intervention of Dan Satterberg, chief prosecutor for King County (Seattle and environs). Dozier paid tribute to Satterberg, who was on hand, and to education itself; his involvement with UBB clearly changed his life for the better. He is a resourceful man who used the grievance system within the prison to get drug and alcohol counselling. In fact, Dozier recognized that he was ‘blessed’ in 1994 by being caught and taken off the street, doubly blessed by his release.
Angela Davis backed up Dozier by her thematic emphasis: “no liberation without education”. Still, she’s a prison abolitionist who is constantly reminded that the USA has 2.3 million prisoners behind bars, many of whom are there because of discriminatory legal practices. While she praised the audience for contributing large sums of money to UBB, she was also “angry that the burden is on the outsider and not the government”. Historically, prisons, taking the place of corporal and capital punishment, were supposed to reform. Now they punish, and those who run the system are generally uninterested in educating inmates, as exemplified by the elimination of Pell grants to prisoners, even though it’s generally conceded that education reduces recidivism.
Which is why Satterberg’s presence was especially welcome. In fact, he gave the keynote address in 2014 and has issued a ten point plan for improving criminal justice. One reform I hope he contemplates is the elimination of life without parole. Uncommon though it may be, It is altogether likely that other wrongly convicted prisoners besides Rafay and Burns are victims of life without parole.
Davis referred to ‘life without parole’ as the “other death sentence”. It’s supposed to be humane in that the prisoner avoids execution, but I have met several guilty inmates in Washington–where there is no parole system–who would prefer actual death to living death. Bill Clinton bears responsibility–and he has admitted as much–for over incarceration, as it was he who introduced the ‘truth in sentencing’ and three strike laws. But while Clinton is initially responsible, it serves no purpose to indulge in the blame game. Just as the death sentence has been eliminated in some states because the wrong person may be executed, life without parole should be viewed as posing the same problem.
Davis also focused on the dehumanization of prisoners. “Prisoners are people, not convicts, not ‘offenders’. They suffer from ‘thingification’, the concomitant result of this depersonalizing language. What good does this do aside from producing self-loathing. How does a person suddenly change from thing to human being upon his or her release?
Davis’s critique of the system is rooted in her knowledge of history. The system costs 80 billion dollars a year to administer, enough to fund free tuition for every college bound student in America. Why is so much money spent in this way? First, the system provides needed jobs. Second, it distributes money to outside businesses. Hence, it is parasitical. It is no more easily abolished than slavery, which, as Davis points out, is at the root of the prison system. Right now, the only escape from prison within the prison is ‘the life of the mind’. Rubin Carter came to the same conclusion. “If slavery had really been abolished, there would have been no need for a Civil Rights movement.” The abysmal state of public education for African Americans outside the prisons is as much a cause for crime as poverty.
Finally, Davis pointed out a “Ban the box” movement. When a person leaves prison he or she should be allowed to get a job without checking a box that he or she has been convicted of a crime. It’s recriminalization. How does one escape from prison without a regular job? How does one escape from slavery without a regular job.
These problems are the dilemma of reformers like Dan Satterberg.