Activist Angela Davis: Education Is Critical for Prison Reform

Her mantra on ‘liberating minds as well as liberating society’ resonated with an Arkansas crowd.
Political activist Angela Davis had an Arkansas crowd on their feet while speaking about prison reform and education on Thursday night. (Photo: Getty Images)
Oct 26, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Political activist Angela Davis doesn’t pull any punches telling people what’s wrong with the United States.

She starts with the prison industrial complex and zig zags to women’s rights and the lack of education for many minority groups.

“We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society,” Davis said. “Those behind bars have not had a chance at education. Why don’t we start a long-range plan in this country to remake our educational system?”

Those remarks got loud applause for Davis on Thursday night at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she spoke to a packed auditorium. She came to Little Rock, site of the 1957 Central High school integration crisis, at the invitation of the university’s Institute on Race and Ethnicity.

More: ‘Middle of Nowhere’ Director: ‘If I Could, I Would Abolish Prisons.’

Earlier this year, the institute launched a major criminal justice project aimed at the racial disparities in the state’s prisons and justice system.

Davis first appeared on many people’s radar in the 1970s as a political activist and a feminist. Because of her involvement in the Communist Party USA, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan urged the Board of Regents of the University of California to fire her in 1969 from her position as a philosophy professor.

But it was her association with a shootout at a California courthouse in which she was accused of buying guns for it that would land her on the nation’s front pages. Listed as one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted, she was charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy, and a worldwide campaign for her freedom began. She was later acquitted.

Her 18-month stint in jail more than 40 years ago, Davis said, made her realize the growing need for reform in prisons and for the abolishment of the death penalty.

“There is a kind of racism entrenched in this mode of punishment,” Davis said.

Davis relates racism to the death penalty by citing that slave law allowed for death in an array of crimes, not just for murder, as was the case for whites.

“Here we are in the 21st century dealing with the vestiges of slavery,” she said.

The United States leads the world in incarcerations. In 1970, about 200,000 people were behind bars. Now that number exceeds 2.5 million.

The fact that neither President Barack Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney brought up prisons in either of the three debates worries Davis. She said that the lack of jobs is often directly related to incarceration as underground, illegal economies flourish.

You cannot think about liberation without education.

“When people have no hope or future, they turn to something that will make them feel better,” Davis said. “The so-called war on drugs was the main lever that drove this mass incarceration of 2.5 million people behind bars.”

By putting people in jail, society, she said, can ignore the real problems of addiction, immigration, racism and lack of education for minorities.

“You cannot think about liberation without education,” she said.

Davis received three standing ovations from the mostly female crowd in Arkansas. In an interview following her lecture, Davis said regardless of the complicated problems in this country, she has optimism.

“I have a lot of hope for this generation,” she said. “It’s more difficult to build and sustain movement than it was 40 years ago or even in the 1930s. The ideas are so much more complicated now. We didn’t talk about gender equality then, sexuality, or disabilities. How do you put all of these things together and the complexities of the political arena?”

But because the millennial generation has learned from people like Davis, they are often better at organizing. An example? The Occupy movement from earlier this year. It got the country discussing capitalism. The same kind of actions need to happen in prisons and the education system.

“We have to rethink our goals,” Davis said. “That is the process of freedom. To me that is what is exciting about big movements about social change.”