Imagine there are no prisons; it may be hard to do.
Yet that is exactly what social activist Angela Davis challenged an audience of about 725 people to do Monday night at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
The program’s topic was “Mass Incarceration: The Prison Industrial Complex.”
Older Americans may remember Davis as an attractive, young, black radical with a huge Afro. She has been an outspoken advocate for social justice and equality since in the late 1960s. She was a member of the U.S. Communist party and a member of the Black Panthers.
Now 70 years old, it soon became obvious age has not dulled her radical edge.
She is a lecturer and a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she teaches courses on the history of consciousness and feminist studies.
She also is the author of eight books, including “Are Prisons Obsolete?” and a founding member of Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to the dismantling of the prison industrial complex by “challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.”
Davis shared Lehigh’s stage with Nas, introduced as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. His musical career has spanned more than 20 years.
He has released 10 studio albums and sold more than 25 million records worldwide and received 11 Grammy nominations.
Perhaps to the disappointment of his many fans in the audience, Nas did not perform.
The audience was racially mixed and young, probably mostly Lehigh students.
Nas had his arm around Davis when they walked on stage together.
Joining them was Dr. James Peterson, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh.
With Peterson serving as moderator, the three of them sat in a living room setting, complete with a carpet and coffee table, on the stage inside Baker Hall in Zoellner Arts Center.
The enthusiastic people in the audience applauded so frequently that they sometimes drowned out the speakers while they still were talking.
Their discussion lasted less than 40 minutes, not enough time for an in-depth exploration of the prison industrial complex and possible alternatives to it.
But Davis repeatedly stressed the key alternative is education.
The final 30 minutes of the program was set aside for people to ask questions.
Peterson called Davis “a revolutionary activist” and “arguably the greatest activist of the 20th century,” which generated cheers and applause.
Nas told Davis he was honored to be sitting with her, because “you’re my hero.”
She in turn praised Nas, saying it is through culture that most people develop their political consciousness “so thank you for your work.”
Peterson said both Davis and Nas have addressed prison issues in their work from the very beginning, through his music and her social activism. Both said they have friends in prison. And, while she only touched on it briefly, Davis has been in jail.
What’s wrong with prisons
Peterson described mass incarceration as “the practice of incarcerating large amounts of American citizens, mostly people of color, mostly poor folk, people who have substance abuse problems, etc.”
He said the war on drugs obviously is directly connected to mass incarceration.
“The prison industrial complex is the entity that conducts mass incarceration,” he said. “It’s a partnership between our government and private corporations that incentivizes some private institutions and some government facilities to incarcerate more and more people. The system continues to grow.”
Davis said nearly 2.5 million people are incarcerated in the United States.
She can remember when 200,000 people were in prison in this country “and that seemed like a huge number of people. I remember thinking ‘how can we incarcerate so many people?’”
“Because the overwhelming majority of people in prison here and all over the world are men, we often assume it’s only a men’s issue,” said Davis. “The fact is that women constitute the fastest growing sector of the imprisoned population.”
Peterson said the recidivism rate -- the rate at which people return to the prison system after they get out -- is as high as two-thirds. And he said 40 percent of those prisoners “are black and brown folk.”
He called it “one of the great civil rights challenges that we’re faced with.”
Davis remembers when it was hard to talk to people about what was happening in prisons. “The assumption was they must have done something really bad.”
“Most people are not in jail or in prison for violent crimes,” said Peterson.
“Absolutely not,” agreed Davis.
Referring to those who are in prison for violent crimes, she was applauded when she indicated society should figure out what causes people to do such things “as opposed to just throwing them away.
“If we didn’t learn anything else from Nelson Mandela, we should have learned about the possibility of healing justice.”
Davis said when a close friend was killed, and her killer was on trial, “I had to work with myself because, emotionally, my feeling was that he deserved to die. But if we have this kind of retributive justice system, all we’re doing is reproducing the violence.”
“We criminalize people in prison by the way we imagine them as criminals,” said Davis. “The prison industrial complex could not exist without that kind of complicity on our part.”
“If we could just wave a magic wand and say ‘no more prisons’ what are the institutions that need to be in place?” asked Peterson. “Or what institutions need to be enhanced?”
“The abolition of prisons is the creation of schools,” said Davis.
“It’s so tragic that the schools we have – especially in communities of color, especially in poor communities – they’re not even about educating.
“They’re all about discipline and testing. They discipline people like they’re in prison already. Education becomes preparatory for the discipline of jails and prisons. That is the real shame in this society today.”
She said children should be learning how to love acquiring knowledge, “how to find joy in learning.”
She said both of her parents were teachers who “taught us how to love learning. All my siblings and I learned how to read by the time we were three.”
In response to a question, Nas said if he could change one policy to improve social justice in the United States, it would be drug laws, adding: “All of them.”
He said people get outrageous prison time for drug charges. “It’s crazy, like murder time. They’re doing it all wrong.”
Davis got people out of their seats and cheering when she said: “I would make education free.”
She added: “People look to drugs for their happiness. They should be looking to knowledge for their happiness.”
“Everyone should go to prison”
Everyone should go to prison, suggested Davis, but not by getting arrested.
“Go to prison to visit someone, to offer your service,” she said. “Whatever talents you have, you can teach a class or spend time with people in prison.”
To applause, Davis said: “Students, institutions like this encourage you to be elitists. Break down those hierarchies.” She said anyone who works with people in prisons should be prepared to learn from them as much as they intend to teach them.
Nas suggested visiting prisoners with a business plan and having others who are skilled in business speak to them, so they can become “financially literate” and prepare for productive lives once they get out. “This is America, it’s about getting some bread.”
But Davis said another hurdle is that “people who get out of prison are still in prison,” because they have to check a box on job applications and college applications if they have been convicted of a felony.
Hip-hop and prison
Peterson is the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, which is dedicated to researching the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures.
Peterson said many people say hip-hop is at least partially responsible for glorifying the behavior that gets people into prison and of prison itself.
To great applause, Nas mentioned a song on his first album called “One Love,” which he said is about jail. “That song is just reality, it’s not about glorifying.”
He noted there were jails long before there was rap music. “Rap was born through what the system was doing to the people.”
He said rap also tells people what’s really going on the streets in different parts of the country.
He acknowledged rappers do sometimes “get caught up in the lifestyle, but we’re honest.”
Nas advised the audience: “You guys have got to be smart. You’ve got common sense. You can’t be duped. You can’t go to jail. You don’t need a gun. You don’t need to ride around with no license, high. You’ve got to use your brain.”
Nas said rap once was “our little ghetto secret” but now is on some radio stations all day.
“I make some of these records where I use crazy words,” he said, but added they shouldn’t be played on the radio all the time.
He suggested some rap songs are not appropriate for children, adding: “We’ve got to tell our kids what to listen to and what not to listen to. We’ve got to be better parents, straight up.”
“I love rap music,” said Nas. “When I think of rap music, I don’t think of derogatory words, violence – that’s a big section of rap music.
“In my car, I listen to Public Enemy. I have a four-year-old son and he listens to Public Enemy. He doesn’t know about all the other stuff that’s going on there. I keep it from him because he’s four years old and he has four-year-old things to do. I protect him.”
Davis admitted she is a fan of jazz. “I’m not as much a lover of rap as Nas is.” She said she does listen to it, but often as an academic, because it’s not the music she grew up with.
Davis shares her story
“It seems I’ve been addressing issues of imprisonment and the prison industrial complex practically all of my life,” said Davis
She said her first involvement was a result of working to free political prisoners in the 1960s, including those who were members of the Black Panther Party. The audience drowned her out with applause when she began mentioning their names: “Huey Newton, Bobby Seales….”
She said she soon learned about the political and racist function of prisons. “People were in prison simply because of racism.”
“I was a young assistant professor, politically active,” she said. “I got hired to teach at UCLA. I got fired before I was able to teach my first class because I was a member of the Communist Party.” `
She said when she saw a photo of three prisoners, called the Soledad Brothers, draped in chains “it became apparent to me that I had to get involved in that case. I was defending my right to teach. But it occurred to me that all I had to lose was a job. They stood to lose their lives because they were charged with capital offenses.”
Davis was jailed for 18 months on several charges, including murder, for her alleged involvement in the courtroom escape attempt by the Soledad Brothers. She eventually was acquitted.
“I got out of jail years ago, before most of you were born,” she told the audience. “I never even imagined myself speaking to audiences like this.”
Davis, who was fighting a cold, said it was her second time at Lehigh. She was there in mid-January but the program was cancelled when the campus shut down because of bad weather.
She seemed eager to share more, decrying domestic violence: “A family can often be a haven for some of the worst kinds of violence against women and against children.”
She also mentioned “the capitalist food industry that makes us sick while supposedly serving our needs for nutrition.”
Nas shares his story
Nas, whose full name is Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, grew up in New York City. He said he was a high school drop-out, but knows the importance of education.
Explaining the mind set of his youth, the 40-year-old Nas said “we grew up in a war—there was a war on and no one really told us what the war was. We would hear little pieces of stuff like ‘watch out for this,’ “be careful in school’ and ‘don’t talk to strangers.’ We started seeing how the cop cars would drive by slower and slower, focusing on us.
“And then we’d see the dope fiends. Some of my friends’ parents were on dope. There was a large amount of drugs in the poor neighborhood and a large amount of guns. It was rough on me, seeing my friends’ families torn apart by drugs.”
He said he saw friends’ older brothers getting locked up and wondering “what do the cops want him for?” And then, one by one, many of his friends also wound up in jail.
“Whether you dabble in the street life or not, if you lived it, you’re just as guilty. You couldn’t escape it.”
Nas said he was lucky growing up —that he was getting real love rather than “broken household love’ that some of his friends were getting.
He decided he wanted more, that he did not want to live in that environment as an adult and he didn’t want his own children to grow up in it.