With everyone caring about the unfairness of the Ethan Couch verdict, what worries me is what has always occurred during these outcries. Namely, in a country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, rather than looking at issues of structural inequity in conviction and sentencing, we are going to do what we always do— govern through imprisonment because of our orientation towards crime and punishment as a solution to solve society's problem (PS. read this book).
It's not okay that Ethan Couch, like so many wealthy, white people have been given preferential treatment. But it's also not a solution to propose that the answer is to beef up the system to promote his incarceration. All that ends up resulting in is mandatory minimums and three strikes and you are out laws.
The people who suffer under these kinds of laws are the very people who are screwed under the current system—namely people of color and poor people, especially working class and poor African American men. It doesn't address the problem associated with who gets arrested for crimes— which is often unrelated to who commits crimes (especially when considering drug crimes but does cut across classes of crimes and is incredibly difficult to measure). It doesn't address whether imprisonment effectively reduces the incident of crime, either initially or whether it addresses recidivism.
And none of this discusses the fact that crime and punishment is big business in this country and when we rally for blood and a desire to see people locked up in response to these types of stories, we have to wonder, who are we serving with our outrage? I think in the end, it is rarely for the cause of social justice, even if we think it is. I think this Ethan Couch story will be used as a way to advance our current crime and punishment orientation, further punish poor people and/or people of color and make us think that once again, we have done something to even the power dynamics in this country, when in fact we haven't done that at all.
I wish we could really have a real conversation about how damaging— how much a human rights violation, mass incarceration is. But it usually is drowned out by the right and the left using prisons to solve social problems.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Davis, we've just gotten a Facebook question. Folks going to facebook.com/democracynow. Daniel Chard writes, "In your book Abolition Democracy, you briefly discuss the US prison system as a form of state terrorism. In what ways do prisons function as a form of terrorism?"
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, prisons create the assumption that those who are a threat to our safety and security are behind bars, but in actuality, the techniques of violence, the techniques of terror that are most dangerous, are the ones used within the system itself. And I would say that it's not simply a question of racist repression. It's also a question of gender repression. It's also a question of repression of sexualities. You know, one of the — as I've been pointing out, one of the most interesting developments within the anti-prison movement looks at the way in which the prison itself serves as a gendering apparatus, looks at the violence inflicted on people who do not identify as male or female in the conventional sense, who identify as transgender or as gender-nonconforming, the violence that is inflicted on people who do not subscribe to compulsory heterosexuality, violence against lesbians, violence against gay men, so that you might say that the prison is this institution that is grounded, in so many ways, in violence.
And the violence of slavery, which we assume was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment and afterwards, is very much at work within US prison institutions. And because the prison has been marketed on the global capitalist circuit, we discover these prisons, the US-style prisons now, all over the world, in the Global North as well as the Global South.
AMY GOODMAN: How would you like to see them changed? You're a founder of the Critical Resistance movement in this country. You talk about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. What would you want to see in this country?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I would like to see, as Fay Honey Knopp, who was an abolitionist during the '70s and the '80s and one of the co-authors of a wonderful book called Instead of Prisons: An Abolitionist Handbook, you know, I would like to see an emphasis on decarceration, an emphasis on ex-carceration. You know, I would like to see us examine the ways in which the criminalization of certain behaviors, such as drug use and drug trafficking, has allowed the prison system to expand the way that it has. The vast majority of women who are behind bars are in prison in relation to a drug charge. I would like to see us decriminalize drug use, for example. I would like to see us engage in a national conversation on true alternatives to incarceration. I'm not speaking about house arrest and probation and parole and so forth. I'm talking about ways of addressing social problems that are entirely disconnected from law enforcement.
And that would mean an emphasis on education. As Frederick Douglass pointed out, education is indeed the way to liberation. Frederick Douglass taught himself how to read and write, because he recognized that there could be no liberation without education. Now there seems to be a greater emphasis on incarceration than education. So we have to say, "Education, not incarceration." And then, of course, healthcare, physical healthcare, mental healthcare. And, you know, even though we should be happy that some kind of healthcare bill was passed, but it doesn't even begin to address the real problems that people have in this country. Mental healthcare, the prison system serves as a receptacle for those who are unable to find — poor people who are unable to find treatment for mental and emotional disorders. So, in a sense, you might say that the abolitionist movement, the prison abolitionist movement, is a movement for a better world, for a different society, for a world that doesn't need to depend on prisons, because the kinds of institutions that provide — that serve people's needs will be available.
And in this sense, we have to return to the notion of abolition democracy. There were those who were struggling to simply get rid of freedom — sorry, there those who were struggling to simply get rid of prisons and assuming that freedom would be the negation of slavery. There were those who were struggling to simply get rid of slavery, assuming that freedom would be the negation of slavery. But there were those who recognized that there could be no freedom without economic equality, without political equality, without educational institutions. And even though we are under the impression that we abolished slavery, we're still living with those vestiges, the lack of an educational system that serves all people regardless of their economic background, the lack of a healthcare system, the lack of access to housing. And this is in large part the role that the prison has played. It has become a receptacle for those who have not been able to find a place in society. And this is true not only in the US, but literally all over the world. This is why we are experiencing an expansion of the prison system in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. And this is very much connected to the rise in global capitalism. So, prison abolition is about building a new world.