Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Between Angela Davis and a Hard Place

Friday morning, January 21st. For only the second time since I have known him, I visited my friend on Oregon's death row. We spoke about his story, his path to prison, the system and how hard it is to hold on to humanity within it. And we spoke about holding on.

Friday evening, January 21st. For only the second time since I have known her work, I heard Angela Davis deliver a presentation. She spoke at a private University, not even a few miles from the State Penitentiary where I had been that morning with Gary. She challenged us to "widen the angle of our vision" when thinking about justice and prisons.

In Are Prison's Obsolete? (a tiny little book that everyone should read -- on the train, on the can, between classes, in whatever small time one might make for big ideas), Davis writes:

“On the whole, people tend to take prisons for granted. It is difficult to imagine life without them. At the same time, there is reluctance to fact the realities hidden within them, a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings. We take prisons for granted but are often afraid to face the realities they produce.” (Davis, 2003, p. 15).

Through my relationship with a death row inmate, I have come to experience the realities of my life outside of prison differently as well as perceive the realities hidden within prisons such as the State Penitentiary, where he has lived since he was 19 years old, differently. The result is paradoxical and I am reminded of Davis’s assertion that we can, we must, hold such things in tension with each other and acknowledge the complexity. My life is richer and more joyous for the perspective our relationship has brought yet also much darker and more cynical for it. For he is not one of those innocents exonerated (138 and counting) nor already executed. His crime was horrific and brutal yet I cannot deny the way both society and the state have failed, time and time again, to provide any opportunity for stability, rehabilitation and restorative justice for those who loved his victims. And the latter begs the question of what might have come of this otherwise intelligent, compassionate man (or what might still become of him) were the systems into which he was placed different.

But, instead, as Davis again points out:

“The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs – it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” (Davis, 2003, p. 16).

Follow the steps of these sisters and brothers on the blog. So many are doing the work in collective, communal ways – teaching classes, publishing poetry, activating communities. If you have not yet taken a first step, reach out. Contact any one of the numerous organizations in your state or region. Follow this blog and check out resources like the Prison Activist Resource Center (www.prisonactivist.org). Begin rethinking prisons, prisoners, and our civic responsibility to create a world that does not produce prisons and prisoners, in order to, as Audre Lorde put it, “sustain a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.”