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By Mumia Abu-Jamal and Angela Y. Davis
The Feminist Wire offers an exclusive look at this new essay to be published in the forthcoming volume Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA, edited by Frances Goldin, Michael Smith, and Debby Smith. Read it here before it hits the shelves!
We live in an era of mega-incarceration on a scale that can scarcely be imagined. The United States locks up more of its people than any other nation in the world. About 2.3 million Americans presently call prison or jail cells home—almost five times as many as there were in 1980. More than 60 percent of these prisoners were Black or Latino, according to the Sentencing Project. With another 5 million people on probation or parole, almost one out of every 30 American adults was under some form of correctional supervision.
Moreover, jails and prisons in the United States have become venues of profit as well as of punishment. As the number of inmates has expanded, private prison corporations have become significant players both here and in the international market. State-owned and operated prisons have outsourced services to private companies, diminishing the difference between private and public prisons.
Any sober investigation into the American criminal-justice system leaves one struck with the inescapable conclusion that it is unfair, unjust, dysfunctional, unbalanced, and profoundly expensive—both in societal and human terms. How we got that way owes less to criminality and more to sociopolitical and economic factors; for who goes into prison is inevitably related to the role that the economic and political elites assign to persons in this society—by who shall exploit whom.
Any serious attempt to arrive at solutions thus has to move beyond both capitalism and its systems of retributive (punishment-based) justice. Over the last decade or so, a mass movement targeting what activists call the “prison-industrial complex” has taken shape. In 2011, the NAACP released a report, “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate Under Educate,” that linked the decline in the quality of education with the soaring prison population.
Initially, though, we must consider the terms we are using, for the concept of “crime,” like much that we today take for granted, is a sociopolitical construct.
In the 1970s, “radical criminologists called the legal definition of crime into question and thereby opened to doubt the very scope of the field of criminology,” scholar David F. Greenberg wrote. Herman and Julia Schwendinger, he noted, “argued that to restrict research to violations of state-made law is to accept the definitions of harm and wrongfulness that the state asserts, and they urged their coworkers to redefine crime as a violation of human rights. These definitions are based on the conceptions of harm held by those who have the power to make law, and consequently tend to exclude from scrutiny harms caused by the actions of the upper class.”
The American Friends Service Committee’s Working Party expressed the spirit with which radical criminologists rejected official definitions. “Actions that clearly ought to be labeled ‘criminal,’ because they bring the greatest harm to the greatest number, are in fact accomplished officially by agencies of the government,” it stated in 1971. “The overwhelming number of murders in this century has been committed by governments in wartime. Hundreds of unlawful killings by police go unreported each year. The largest forceful acquisitions of property in the United States have been the theft of lands guaranteed by treaty to Indian tribes, thefts sponsored by the government. The largest number of dislocations, tantamount to kidnapping—the evacuation and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II—were carried out by the government with the approval of the courts. Civil-rights demonstrators, struggling to exercise their constitutional rights, have been repeatedly beaten and harassed by police and sheriffs. And in the Vietnam War, America has violated its Constitution and international law.”
Social structures—courts, police, prisons, etc.—have within them a deep bias about what constitutes crime and what does not. Any social structure is a product of its previous historical, economic and social iterations, and these previous forms bear significant influence on later forms. The present system, in addition to being increasingly repressive, is the logical inheritance of its racist, hierarchical, exploitative past, and it is also a reactive formation to attempts to transform, democratize, and socialize it.
For authentic democracy to emerge, “abolition democracy” must be enacted—the abolition of institutions that advance the dominance of any one group over any other. It is the democracy that is possible if we continue the legacy of the great abolition movements in American history, those that opposed slavery, lynching, and segregation. As long as the prison-industrial-complex remains, American democracy will continue to be a false one. Such a false democracy reduces people and their communities to the barest biological subsistence because it pushes them outside the law and the polity.
The idea of abolition democracy comes from a reading of U.S. history where the freedom struggle is central to who Americans are and to why we are who we are. We are less exemplars of legendary “founding fathers” than we are of “founding freedom fighters”—inheritors of those who fought for their freedom, not from a British aristocracy, but from American slavocracy.
We need to prepare not only a critique of a repressive, incarceral status quo, but a vision of a new, enlightened, more human, more socialized view of a future without mass incarceration.
The rise of the prison-industrial complex and the mass incarceration of African-Americans is the most recent incarnation of how human bondage and racial repression, the American way of life for two-thirds of its national existence, strive to reassert themselves, albeit via different faces and forms.
The Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution during Reconstruction spelled slavery’s doom. Within a few years, however, the system thought buried by war was exhumed and given new life under the program of leasing convicts as labor. It was slavery in every sense but its name. Indeed, as it was public instead of private “slavery,” it was in some ways worse.
With a new face, to be sure, but the same bite, the same hungers, the same skewed consciousness, the golem of stolen labor lived again, this time as a fixture of the prison system, which, through notorious Black Codes and police targeting of Black communities, consigned generations of Black men and women to endless lives of toil and state terror, for corporate profits.
For these many, many people, freedom was but a poor and cruel joke. And the “peonage” system that succeeded slavery kept millions of others in bondage. “Under the aegis of the Freedmen’s Bureau, large numbers of black peasants signed annual contracts with white planters,” the esteemed Black scholars Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame wrote in Long Memory in 1982. “Generally penniless, they obtained advances on their wages or shares of the crop. Since they were illiterate, the planters often overcharged and cheated them. The result was perpetual debt, compulsion, violence, oppression, and de facto slavery. The murder of black peons was a frequent occurrence in the 1940s.”
In 1907, a white resident of Florida argued, “Slavery is just as much an ‘institution’ now as it was before the war.” The Georgia Baptist Convention agreed with this view in 1939: “There are more negroes held by these debt slavers than were actually owned as slaves before the War Between the States.” A federal antipeonage law was passed in 1948, under pressure from the activism of U.S. Communists, and peonage complaints were filed with the Justice Department well into the 1970s.
What sociologist Loïc Wacquant has termed the “penal state” is driving the profound social inequality and unparalleled repression that is the prison-industrial complex. Economic, political, and social forces have converged to create a system of vested interests to ensure its continued expansion and wealth.
In sum, the present system drains public resources to pursue a chimera of public safety, when it actually is a legalized system of violence against unprivileged communities, who have been the historical bogeymen of the American body politic. It is, too, a retort against the alleged goal of social justice, and is a profound waste of human potential and social development.
With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, how comes it that the U.S. has around 25 percent of the world’s prison population? That is a sign of imbalance, not an exemplar of social justice.
We have stated the problems.
It is time to proffer some solutions.
How can we transform institutions such as the prison in ways that are inspired by visions of socialism? From whence are we to draw models or alternatives to the present system, especially in an era when the socialist community is in such disarray, if not full retreat? Russia? Cuba? China? Albania?
Implicit in such a question is the assumption that external models are the only ones available to us, and that no such internal model exists.
This is a fractured view of the nation’s history, for, to quote James Baldwin, “American history is longer, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.
The U.S. federal system—a kind of dual sovereignty—owes much to the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six Nations Confederacy, which comprised the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. The confederacy lasted for several centuries under enormous pressure from the Anglo-Americans.
The indigenous peoples of this continent, according to some historians, gave far better evidence of democracy, gender equality, and racism-free life and governance than its European invaders did. We might also discover important insights about justice by looking at histories of indigenous people. Among the Native Americans of the Northeast, criminal justice was a communal concern.
“No laws or ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails—the apparatus of authority in European societies—were to be found in the Northeast woodlands prior to European arrival. Yet boundaries of acceptable behavior were firmly set. Though priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of right and wrong,” historian Gary Nash noted in his groundbreaking work Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America. “He who stole another’s food or acted invalourously in war was ‘shamed’ by his people and ostracized from their company until he had atoned for his actions and demonstrated to their satisfaction that he had morally purified himself.”
In other words, respect for individuality did not have to lead to modes of punishment that separated the individual from the community both physically and symbolically. “The Western way is to punish you, so that you don’t repeat the behavior,” Robert Yazzie, former Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, told the international Institute for Restorative Practices in 2004. “But the Navajo way is to focus on the individual. You separate the action from the person.” This approach points to a form of justice that does not rely on assuming that the quality of the harm created by a person can be translated into quantitative terms, such as a specific length of prison time.
The Navajo peacemaking process, Yazzie said, brings the offender and the victim together to talk to each other. “The first order of business the relatives would do in the peacemaking process is to get to the bottom of a problem. In court, I would sue you for battery and the state would say we have to prove all the elements of a crime and use the rules or the law to prove that you are guilty… that’s beside the point. What matters here is: why did this act happen in the first place? There’s a reason why the harm has occurred. Let’s deal with that. Maybe we have a history of problems between the two of us. If we can get to the bottom of a problem, all the other stuff will fall into place. The damage can be acknowledged by you, and I can go away happy from the process, knowing that you say that you’re not going to do it again.”
This form of justice may be unobtainable in contemporary American society, but it contains much less oppression and torture than the Anglo-American form, and it takes a profoundly different approach. It is not a form of justice without pain. In a traditional society, being ostracized would be the greatest disability, for individuals’ self-definition relied, in great part, upon their membership and place within the clan and the tribe—the community. These people knew one another, and thus were best able to determine how to respond to violations of communal well-being.
They modeled the road not taken.
Yet their very existence shows us the powerful historical precedents that may inform our present, by fueling a bigger, broader, deeper definition of America, one that is centered on freedom, rather than domination; one that is more nation than empire.
Establishing community courts (especially, ones composed of non-lawyers) would utilize these insights from traditional societies, and thus mitigate the destructiveness inherent in the present corporate-type, assembly-line system that is breaking state budgets and individuals’ bodies and spirits on the anvil of so-called “criminal justice.”
Nor is this idea unthinkable within the current U.S. legal system. In Pennsylvania, both the state constitution and state law provide for the establishment of “community courts,” as a section of what’s termed the minor judiciary. One was opened in Philadelphia in 2002, becoming one of approximately 30 community courts in U.S. cities (and 50 outside the U.S.) Like its counterparts, the Philadelphia Community Court was empowered to use community service and other restorative sanctions to address “quality of life” offenses such as prostitution, drug possession, and theft.
When the court closed down in September 2011 due to funding cuts, it had enabled more than 500,000 hours of community service. It also provided offenders with social services such as medical care and drug counseling.
“The whole purpose of community court was to take a holistic approach and to kind of address the needs of the individuals as they came in, with the recognition that sometimes people found themselves in court with issues that went beyond the case that was presented to the judge,” Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield told the Philadelphia Weekly.
“Community justice represents not a simple return to the rehabilitative ideal, but an approach to crime and punishment that is radically different from that of the traditional criminal justice process,” Adriaan Lani wrote in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review in 2005. “Community justice initiatives—which include community prosecution, community courts, sentencing circles, and citizen reparative boards—advocate local, decentralized crime control policies generated through widespread citizen participation. They emphasize attacking the causes of crime, rehabilitating individual offenders, and repairing the harm caused by crime rather than punishing offenders according to traditional retributive or deterrent concerns.”
Community courts that have attempted to use nonretributive or restorative justice models implicitly resist the mechanics of capitalist justice. They can demonstrate that it is far more effective to try to transform the social relations that have been damaged by those who commit acts of harm against others than to rely on prison sentences. Thus, these courts can serve as an important fulcrum for challenging and providing alternatives to retributive justice—which, combined with the criminalization of Black and Latino communities, has led to a titanic increase in the numbers of people behind bars.
It is the principle that is important here, for it illustrates exactly how feasible this suggestion is. Freedom in one’s communal life can bleed into the community’s economic life, especially as the national polity forms structures that reflect its political will.
Thus a nonracist community, which is theoretically free of the ideological blinders and bondage of white supremacy, could create social policies that conform more to the innate humanity of all persons, rather than to the exploitation of fear that typifies the regnant structures of criminal justice.
What, systematically, must be changed?
If we see the present structure as problematic, then we must consider how to destroy, reconstruct, or ameliorate it. And if history is our guide, we must be vigorous, for else we will see old forms reassert themselves with new masks, protecting the same (or worse) inequalities.
What we decide to do will be open to the decisions of popular, democratic groupings in the future, as they seek greater humanistic and socialistic expressions, but a basic preliminary list would include:
It’s also time to end the racist “war on drugs,” which is as illogical as it is ineffective. It has been little more than a mask for massing state power against social movements and lower-class populations.
We cannot, at this juncture of history, pussyfoot around.
The cynical among us might well ask, “Humph! That’s all fine and dandy. But how do you get there from here?”
Those of us who have lived in, worked in, and studied history know that social change is no short-term or ready-made process. We know that social movements play a decisive role in that process, for they move nations from one seemingly settled place to quite other places over time.
As repression continues, so too must resistance. Abolition democracy is one vision of how to deepen and extend that resistance. A central tenet of it is building (or, perhaps, rebuilding) movements of prisoners and against mass incarceration.
The movement to abolish slavery, which many activists cite today in the prison context, was a bold and daring project. Those bold men and women transformed America by fighting for social change—and refusing to submit to a slavocracy.
The great abolitionist (and ex-slave) Frederick Douglass captured this theme brilliantly when he said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
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Mumia Abu-Jamal is a world-renowned prisoner, radio journalist, and author of seven acclaimed books. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death, following his 1981 arrest for allegedly murdering Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Systemic police corruption and judicial and prosecutorial misconduct in his trial, as well as Abu-Jamal’s steadfast assertion of innocence, have all made this case a global symbol of American justice gone wrong. In 2011, after surviving a grueling 28 years on Pennsylvania’s death row, his death sentence was declared unconstitutional and commuted to life without parole. Abu-Jamal’s demand for a new trial and freedom are supported by heads of state from France to South Africa, Nobel Laureates Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, and Desmond Tutu, by the European Parliament, distinguished human rights organizations like Amnesty International, city governments from Detroit and San Francisco to Paris, by scholars, religious leaders, artists, scientists, the Congressional Black Caucus and other members of U.S. Congress, the NAACP, labor unions, and by countless thousands who cherish democratic and human rights the world over.
Angela Y. Davis is known internationally for her ongoing work to combat all forms of oppression in the U.S. and abroad. Over the years she has been active as a student, teacher, writer, scholar, and activist/organizer. She is a living witness to the historical struggles of the contemporary era. During the last twenty-five years, Professor Davis has lectured in all of the fifty United States, as well as in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the former Soviet Union. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and she is the author of nine books, including Angela Davis: An Autobiography; Women, Race, and Class; Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; The Angela Y. Davis Reader; Are Prisons Obsolete?; a new edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; and The Meaning of Freedom.