Women and the Struggle Against Prisons

24 Jul Women and the Struggle Against Prisons

By Susan Burton

Susan Burton

Susan Burton

As a formerly incarcerated woman working to organize others who have spent years behind bars, I was honored to help bring Professor Angela Y. Davis, a former political prisoner and survivor of the prison system, to Watts on June 14. “Angela Speaks” was organized by the 2014 cohort of Women Organizing for Justice, (“WOJ”) a project I began to build leaders among formerly incarcerated women.

When I started WOJ, I invited the participants to open their minds and their hearts to the possibilities that come from reflecting together and from taking on collective projects.

The event we organized at the Civil Rights Museum in Watts was an expression of those hearts and minds flourishing. More than one hundred South Los Angeles residents and activists around L.A. working to end mass incarceration and for gender and racial equity, attended it.  The event was a fundraiser to support the costs of transporting former prisoners to visit the Board of Prison Terms to advocate for the release of ill and aging prisoners.

Most importantly, this was an expression of our human potential, of the healing that happens when we find our voices and exert our leadership. Below are some excerpts of Angela Davis’s thoughts on prison, gender and organizing that emerged from a conversation that was, above all, about asserting our power to speak and to fight injustice.

On why it is important to consider the particular ways women are affected by prison expansion:

“When we talk about the prison crisis, mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, we assume that we are talking about men.  Of course, it is important to support men who are, perhaps, the most immediate and physical targets of that system. But if you ask how women are affected by that system…if you ask who are the people who are most affected by this crisis…if you go to any men’s prisons today, who do you see?  Who has to deal with the assaults on families that happen as a result of this drive towards mass incarceration that has been primarily fueled by racism?”

On the connection between violence behind prison walls and violence against women:

“When we think about racist violence—repressive violence—we generally assume that the targets are male.  We forget that women constitute, all over the world, not just in this country, the targets of violence that have been the most harmed, the most damaged. We don’t ask [if there] is a connection between domestic violence—the violence in intimate relationships—and the violence that happens in the streets and inside prisons.”

On the role of organizing in the struggle against mass incarceration:

“I think this is a period when we have to encourage popularization of complicated ways of understanding the world.  I say that remembering my experiences as an organizer right here in Los Angeles…Don’t let anyone tell you people don’t have the capacity to understand complexity…If we assume that…problems can be solved simplistically…we end up believing solutions should emerge instantaneously…I want to emphasize the importance of thinking about…how the work we do today can indeed help to build a better world…None of us may be around [to see the change], but does that mean that we stop struggling?”

On the “roll-back” of the War on Drugs:

We have these conservatives with an organization called “Right on Crime,” which many people are greeting…as an important development.  But when you look at it more closely…you see that they are interested in dismantling the largest government project outside of the military…and are for small government…[they are] not calling for reinvestment…that will…abolish the prison industrial complex…An evolutionist approach helps us understand who our friends are and who…in appearing to support us…call for the reproduction of a whole range of social problems based on racism.

 Burton is the founder and executive director of A New Way of Life Re-entry Project, and a longtime member of Community Coalition’s Prevention Network.  In 2010, she was selected as one of the top ten CNN Heroes among 10,000 nominees from more than 100 countries.

Angela Y. Davis is Distinguished Professor in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1970, she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on false charges, driven underground, and incarcerated for 16 months, before being acquitted. Ronald Reagan once vowed Davis would never teach again in the UC system.

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