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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2011, 8:56 am

After Troy Davis: End the Death Penalty or End the Prison Industrial Complex?

By Rebecca Burns

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Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

At a public lecture on the prison industrial complex and the prison abolition movement held at the University of Chicago on Monday, the audience was eager to discuss the recent execution of Troy Davis.

“How can we effectively seize this moment?” an audience member asked of the worldwide movement that converged around opposition to Davis’ execution by the state of Georgia, fueled in part by the substantial doubt surrounding his guilt.

But scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore—delivering a lectured titled “Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex: the World We Want is the World We Need”—was adamant about the need to move beyond the question of Davis’ guilt or innocence.

Gilmore defined prison abolition—an intentional reference to historic anti-slavery movements—as “abolishing the world in which prisons are central.” While this may ring fanciful to some, the lecture focused on the pragmatic point that campaigning for the end of only the harshest forms of punishment overlooks the root of the problem: the prison industrial complex, so-called because with more than 2.3 million people locked up, corrections now represents a multi-billion dollar industry.

The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world, and, despite a crime rate that has fallen steadily over the past 15 years, our prisons continue to grow. Think Progress noted this week that a 37-percent growth in the private prison population from 2002 to 2009 coincided with a 165 percent increase in the lobbying dollars of Correction Corporations of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private prison company—as well as, according to the Michigan Messenger, the doubling of CCA’s revenues over the past decade.

Discussing the case of Lawrence Russell Brewer, a man executed the same week as Davis by the state of Texas, Gilmore noted that Brewer had reportedly learned racist ideology in prison, where he first joined a white supremacist gang—he claimed for protection—while serving a sentence for drug possession and burglary.

After his release from prison, Brewer remained a member of a Klu Klux Klan splinter group and went on to commit the grisly hate crime murder of an African-American man for which he was executed. While emphasizing that this history did not excuse Brewer, Gilmore argued that it demonstrated the deep mismatch between crime as a problem and mass imprisonment as a solution. “This is not pie in the sky,” Gilmore concluded. “We need to fundamentally challenge the idea that locking people up in cages solves our social problems.”

Monday’s event, sponsored by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, was part of the museum’s annual Conversations on Peace and Justice series marking the birthday of feminist, peace activist and pioneer social worker Jane Addams. Co-sponsored by more than 20 university and community organizations, the event provided a timely opportunity to reflect on the ways in which prison abolition, anti-death penalty and broader anti-racist struggles can reinforce each other or work at cross-purposes.

Gilmore is a co-founder of the groups Critical Resistance (CR) and California Prison Moratorium Project, which seek to challenge the belief that prisons and policing solve social problems and stop the expansion of both public and private prisons.

Asked if the struggle against prisons could represent “the big tent” under which fragmented movements of the left could unite, Gilmore responded that she preferred to think of the growing movement as a “popular front” against the prison industrial complex. Like the popular front against fascism of the 1930s, she explained, organizers did not necessarily agree on all elements of an alternative ideology, but they agreed that they wanted a different world than the one that was taking shape.

The issues of prisons and policing can be a powerful common ground for movements, Gilmore argued, because for many activists “the threat of prison is somewhere nearby.” In Egypt, she said, police repression represented both a common experience and a common spark for the labor, youth and religious groups that amassed in Tahrir Square.

While embracing a broad coalition, Gilmore and CR are staunchly opposed to what they call “reformist reforms,” which they define as efforts that effectively expand the life or scope of the prison industrial complex. As an example, Gilmore cited anti-death penalty campaigns that—in order to assuage ill-informed fears of an increase in violent crime—advocate life sentences without parole as an acceptable alternative to capital punishment. Likewise, legislation that ostensibly helps ex-convicts gain employment, she said, rarely works and fails to address the legal discrimination perpetuated by the criminal justice system.

Instead of allowing debates to return to what she calls the “continually corrupted” language of public safety, Gilmore called for organizers to instead address themselves to the question of what changes would actually make their communities more secure. In addition to focusing on social needs like education and healthcare, this means asking more fundamental questions about why crime occurs.

“The state models behavior for people,” Gilmore said on this point. “In the U.S., the belief continues that problems are best solved by killing.”

Why, then, do our prisons continue to expand? In addition to a hefty profit motive, legal scholar Michelle Alexander has characterized mass imprisonment of African Americans—fueled, particularly, by the “war on drugs”—as a convenient way to channel the psychological discomfort of White Americans with changes precipitated by the Civil Rights Movement. By declaring a “war on drugs” in 1982, she says, President Ronald Reagan was “mak[ing] good on campaign promises to ‘get tough’ on a group of people identified not-so-subtly in the media and political discourse as black and brown.”

At the conclusion of her lecture, Gilmore weighed in unequivocally on the racial agenda of U.S. prisons: “I don’t believe the U.S. prison system is broken,” she said to calls of agreement from the audience. “I believe it works the way it’s supposed to work.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times associate editor. Her writing on labor, housing and education has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Chicago Reader, Dissent, Jacobin and other outlets. She can be reached at rebecca[at] Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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