Angela Davis: The Legacy of Crime and Punishment

Amid her community’s perpetual outcry for humanity and dignity, African-American activist and scholar Angela Davis found her cause in the undoing of the American punitive system.

Sep 27, 2022By Monisha Choudhary, BA Art History
angela davis the legacy of crime and punishment


In 1971, the Federal Bureau of Investigation put a target on Black activist Angela Davis’ back, labeling her as one of America’s most wanted criminals. In the wake of what is now called mass incarceration, the Bureau arrested her for her involvement with the Soledad Brothers. After 18 months of incarceration, she stood before an all-white jury and rid herself of all charges of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy.


Davis was tested time and again – in her efforts to learn as a Black girl, teach as a Black and Marxist instructor, and exist as an aggrieved Black friend to millions lost to prejudice.  With Women, Race, Class (1983), Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), and Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2016), Davis is now recognized as one of the most valuable Black intellectuals ever known. This article attempts to discern Davis’s abolitionist philosophy of the American criminal justice system as a function of capitalism, race, and oppression.


Locating Angela Davis

Angela Davis Mills College
Angela Davis in 1969 speaking at Mills College by Duke Downey, via the San Francisco Chronicle.


Born to middle-class Alabama schoolteachers in 1944, Angela Yvonne Davis was confronted with the difficult terms of blackness at a young age. She lived in “Dynamite Hill”, a neighborhood owing its name to the frequent and numerous bombings by the Ku Klux Klan. In an excerpt from the Black Power Mixtape, Davis is seen talking about losing close friends to bombings as a small girl and her family and community had to adapt to the violence imposed on them. Unable to turn a blind eye to the conditions under which her brothers and sisters lived, Davis went on to be a scholar, educator, and activist.


Davis studied philosophy under Herbert Marcuse, a scholar of the Frankfurt School of critical theory; under his guidance, she became acquainted with far-left politics. When she returned to the United States after having completed her doctorate at Humboldt University in Berlin, she joined the Communist Party. Around that time, Davis was appointed as an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). However, the regents at UCLA fired her because of her political stances. Even though the court restored her designation, she was fired again for using “inflammatory language”.


Angela Davis Wanted Poster FBI
Wanted Poster of Angela Davis by the FBI, via the California African American Museum.

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It wasn’t until 1971 that Davis garnered the attention of the global community when she was enlisted as a wanted criminal and incarcerated for being related to the death of a judge and three other persons. Davis frustrated the prosecutor after spending more than a year in prison. Subsequently, she became the face of Black Pride, Vice-President of the Communist Party of the United States, a member of Black Panther and the founder of Critical Resistance – a movement dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex.


Angela Davis is now a Professor at the University of California. Today, her works in feminism, anti-racism, and the anti-prison movement are rooted in her experiences as a woman of color, a political prisoner, and an enemy of the state. Davis also pays homage and takes away from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to further her political philosophy, and subsequently, her Black scholarship.


Color, Criminality, and Prisons

Angela davis in Rayleigh
Angela Davis addressing a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, 1974. (Photo courtesy of CSU Archive-Everett Collection Inc.)


On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation- freeing all Black persons from their legal status of slavery. Since the kidnapping of the first Black person from the shores of Africa, Black and brown bodies have been subjected to all kinds of discrimination. In Abolition Democracy, Davis looks at the historical treatment of Black bodies and persons in America post-emancipation to elucidate the racialized characteristic of the American penal system.


Following emancipation, Southern America entered what has been called the “Reconstruction” period. The region was democratized, Union troops were stationed to protect Black people when they went to vote and Black persons were elected as senators. The state was, however, faced with the question of relegating a mass of former slaves into the economy as able and independent workers. Within a decade, Southern legislators mandated laws that criminalized free Black men into indentured servants of the state. This body of law was called “Black Laws”, part of which was the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which prohibited slavery to the extent of criminality. Once a criminal, a person would be required to engage in involuntary servitude. Private entrepreneurs used the very clause and began renting Black convicts for absurdly low fees in the same plantations they’d been “liberated” from – this was called convict leasing.


convict leasing
Convict Leasing was legal from 1865 until 1940s (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)


Douglass further argued that in 1883, that there was a general tendency to “impute crime to color”. Black Codes promulgated in the 1870s criminalized vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, possession of firearms, and insulting gestures and acts for Black persons exclusively. Davis says this establishes “race as a tool for presuming criminality”.  Several instances where white persons have disguised themselves as persons of color when committing crimes and even shifted the blame of these crimes onto Black men and got away with it are evidence of this presumption. The American criminal justice system, then, was created to “manage” the Black slaves that no longer had an explicit authority looking over their backs, or worse yet, putting them to work.


Du Bois notes that a criminal framework which subjected Black persons to work was but a disguise to continue exploiting Black labor. Davis adds that this was a “totalitarian reminder” of the existence of slavery in the post-emancipation era. The legacy of slavery established that Blacks could only labor in gangs, under constant supervision, and under the discipline of the lash. Some scholars, thus, argue that convict leasing was worse than slavery.


The penitentiary, as Davis puts it, was constructed to replace corporal and capital punishment with incarceration. While persons awaiting corporal punishment are detained in prison until the execution of their punishment, persons convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated and kept in the penitentiary, to “reflect” on their actions. Scholar Adam Jay Hirsch finds that the conditions of a penitentiary are comparable to that of slavery, insofar that it contains all elements of slavery: subordination, reduction of subjects into dependence for basic necessities, isolation of subjects from the general population, confinement to a fixed habitat, and coercion of subjects to long hours of work with less compensation than free laborers (Hirsch, 1992).


anti crack poster FDA
Anti-crack poster c. 1990, via the FDA.


As the young Black man began to be perceived as “the criminal”, every penal law passed in the nation catered to white majoritarian sentiments, and Black bodies began to become social subjects that needed to be “controlled”. Subsequently, the American presidency started depending on the severity of their position on crime. So much so that Nixon is remembered to this day for his “war on drugs” which he insisted was necessary to combat what he called the most prominent threat to America.


Congress has drafted several legislations that cater to a problem that was blown out of proportion, as experts suggest. The racialized criminalization of non-violent drug possession and the invention of a “crack” epidemic in America ascertained mandatory minimum sentences – with 5 years prison time for 5 grams of crack and the same prison time for 500 grams of cocaine. This “war on drugs”, as Davis puts it, was a successful attempt at mass incarceration of African Americans, who happened to be the social group possessing the most “crack” at the time.


The continuous attribution of color to race is most visible in the current status of Black criminality in the United States, wherein one out of three Black persons is likely to be imprisoned during their lifetime.


Constitutional Enslavement

Cotton Pickers South America
Cotton Pickers in a field in the Southern States of America, c. 1850, via Rutgers University.


Congress ratified the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution on December 6, 1865, following the emancipation of Black people. The Amendment states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.”


Davis notes that this “duly convicted” population would effectively be exclusively Black, as demonstrated by the prison constituency of Alabama. Before emancipation, the prison population was almost completely white. This changed with the introduction of Black Laws, and Black people came to constitute most of the prison population by the end of the 1870s. Despite the existence of the white population in prisons, Davis quotes Curtis in noting the popular sentiment: that Blacks were the “real” prisoners of the South and were especially prone to larceny.


Douglass did not understand law to be a means that reduced Black humans to criminals. Davis found in Du Bois a staunch critique of Douglass, insofar that he considered law as a tool of political and economic subjection of Black persons.


Du Bois says, “In no part of the modern world has there been so open and conscious a traffic in crime for deliberate social degradation and private profit as in the South since slavery. The Negro is not anti-social. He is no natural criminal. Crime of the vicious type, outside endeavor to achieve freedom or in revenge for cruelty, was rare in the slave south. Since 1876 Negroes have been arrested on the slightest provocation and given long sentences or fines that they were compelled to work for as if they were slaves or indentured servants again. The resulting peonage of criminals extended into every Southern state and led to the most revolting situations.”


Trayvon Martin Protest
Protest for Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old who was shot dead in “self-defense”. Image by Angel Valentin, via the Atlanta Black Star.


In the modern context, when a person is arrested on suspicion of having committed a crime, they have a constitutional right to be adjudged by a jury trial. However, prosecutors have been known to settle cases by coercing prisoners into opting for plea bargains- which is essentially admitting to a crime they did not commit. Plea bargaining has increased from 84% of federal cases in 1984 to 94% by 2001 (Fisher, 2003). This coercion rests on the fear of a trial penalty, which assures a longer prison term than a plea bargain.


This method has been used by prosecutors and penal officers to create false convictions and cover up potential misconducts. Given the existing racialized perceptions and realities concerning colored communities and criminality, plea bargains add to the narrative by feeding off of the systemic vulnerability of these communities. In addition to reproducing the same narrative, they are subjected to labor they cannot benefit from, and the constitution remains but a tool for their enslavement.


Joy James notes, “The thirteenth amendment ensnares as it emancipates. In fact, it functions as an enslaving anti-enslavement narrative” (Davis, 2003).


Statecraft, Media and the Imprisonment Complex

Free African Americans photograph
Free African Americans provide support to the Union war effort, circa 1863, via the Guardian.


Angela Davis argues that the state, in its aspirations for industrialization, put the freshly un-slaved Black population into prisons and legally leased them into building modern America. This allowed the state to create a new labor force without exhausting its capital. Davis quotes Lichtenstein in discerning how convict leasing and Jim Crow laws created a new labor force to further the development of a “racial state”. Much of America’s infrastructure was built by labor that did not need to be compensated by stealing from a community whose social capital could have otherwise been used to build its own infrastructure (Davis, 2003).


Most people today recognize prison as a terrifying but inevitable part of social life through popular media representation. Gina Dent notes that this familiarization with prisons through the media establishes prisons as a permanent institution in the social landscape, making them seem indispensable. Davis makes the case that prisons are overrepresented in the media, simultaneously creating fear and a sense of inevitability around prisons. She then pulls us back in asking, what are prisons for? If the goal truly is rehabilitation, then Davis says, the prison complex should focus on decarceration and the reconstruction of the life of a criminal beyond prison. She argues that if the prison complex or the penal system was interested in creating a crime-free society, the focus would be on the prevention of further expansion of the prison population, decriminalization of nonviolent drug possession and sexual trade, and strategies for restorative punishment. Instead, the American state has added a “super-maximum security” chamber to an already heftily tiered prison system, to keep criminals from ever becoming part of society again.


The phrase “Prison Industrial Complex”, as Critical Resistance defines it, is used to describe the “overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems”.


This complex makes use of the prison as both a social and industrial institution to establish crime and punishment as integral to the functioning of society. In doing so it facilitates the reproduction of the very crime it seeks to “prevent”. A gleaning exhibit of this mechanism is the ongoing expansion of this complex for profit through the creation of “jobs” within the prison for convicts and outside of it for infrastructure workers (Davis, 2012). Davis notes that this economic prospect is a result of the subjugation of more susceptible populations, which effectively keeps them from working in their communities. Instead, their subjugation is made profitable, creating incentives for corporations to increase the capital of the complex.


state penitentiary virginia richmond
Photograph of State Penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia, by Alexander Gardner, 1865, via the Met Museum.


Another apparatus the Prison Industrial Complex uses to effectuate discrimination is racial profiling, which emerges from what Davis calls the “anti-immigrant rhetoric”. She finds that the anti-Black rhetoric and the anti-immigrant rhetoric are comparable in the ways they are used to “otherize”. While one rhetoric legitimizes incarceration and the expansion of prisons, the other legitimizes detention and the creation of immigration detention centers – both protecting the great states from “public enemies” (Davis, 2013).


Transnational companies set up manufacturing sites in countries where they can get away with providing the lowest wages without any threat from labor unions. These companies eventually wreck the economies in which they find their workers by replacing subsistence economies with cash economies and creating artificial employment (Davis, 2012). At that point, the exploited workers find their way to America, the promised land, where they are captured at the borders and detained on the count of increasing unemployment – all to suffer the fate of an underpaid, exploited worker who dared to dream the American dream. According to Davis, there is virtually no way out of this labyrinth that global capitalism creates for such immigrants.


Central Immigrant Processing Center McAllen
Central Immigrant Processing Center in McAllen via U.S. Customs and Border Protection.


Davis gives us many reasons to think about the Prison Industrial Complex and in particular, what privatization does when it merges with a social institution utilized to reproduce racial narratives. She lists the various functions of the Prison Industrial Complex, which include (Abolition Democracy, 2005):


  1. Disenfranchisement of persons of color by barring previously convicted persons from acquiring state licenses, finding job opportunities, and voting for candidates of their choosing.
  2. Capital extraction from African American communities by exploiting prison labor and appropriating Black wealth, without any legal or moral obligation to return the social wealth robbed from these communities.
  3. Social branding of Black and colored prisoners as “prisoners” in comparison with their white counterparts.
  4. Creating a Social Contract whereby it is beneficial to be white due to the de facto norms of whiteness, owing to the otherization of colored communities and the domestication of the “white imagination”.
  5. Facilitating Ritual Violence by institutionalizing the cycle of criminality, i.e., Blacks are in prisons because they are criminals, Blacks are criminals because they are Black, and if they are in prison, they deserve what they are getting.
  6. Racializing Sexual Coercion over women of color to effectuate social control.
  7. Surplus Repression of prisoners by establishing prison as a logical way to deal with crime and eliminating any potential discourse concerning the necessity of prisons.
  8. Establishing Interconnected Systems such as the prison and the military-industrial complex, which feed off of and sustain one another.


On having read Davis’s account on the Prison Industrial Complex, one is bound to ask- who are prisons really for? Recent statistics suggest that they are definitely not for criminals who have actually committed crimes. The US has seen a 700% increase in the rate of incarceration, which is in sharp and agonizing contrast with the rapid decline in criminality since 1990, as reported by the ACLU. Davis notes that “prison construction and the attendant drive to fill these new structures with human bodies have been driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit” (Davis, 2003).


Angela Davis and Abolition Democracy

Angela Davis Columbia
Angela Davis in 2017 via Columbia GSAPP.


What Davis means when she advocates for “Abolition Democracy” is the abolition of institutions that advance the dominance of any one group over another. She borrows the term from W.E.B. Du Bois, who coined it in Reconstruction in America, as the ambition needed to “achieve a racially just society”.


Davis begins by acknowledging democracy as a concept which is quintessentially American, which makes any subsequent method to defend this democracy legitimate. Capitalism, then, according to Davis, has become synonymous with American democracy, forcing a subtext to any torture or violence that ensues within America. Within this very framework, violence in America has come to be accepted as a necessary mechanism to “preserve” its democracy. Davis finds that American exceptionalism cannot be challenged by mere moral objection, as it cannot keep the state from manifesting violence upon the “enemies” of the state irrespective of the multitude of discourses occurring in its opposition. This is where Abolition democracy can play a role.


Du Bois Drawing Portrait
Portrait of W. E. B. Du Bois, a significant influence in Davis’s work, by Winold Reiss, 1925, via the National Portrait Gallery.


Davis paraphrases Du Bois in saying that Abolition democracy can be applied primarily to three forms of abolitionism: of slavery, the death penalty, and prison. The argument for the abolition of slavery is furthered in the absence of the creation of new social institutions to incorporate Black persons into the social order. This included access to land, means for economic subsistence, and equal access to education. Du Bois proposes that numerous democratic institutions need to be put in place to completely achieve abolition.


On the subject of the abolition of the death penalty, Davis urges us to understand it as an inheritance of slavery to assist the task of understanding. The alternative to capital punishment, she suggests, is not life imprisonment without parole, but the construction of several social institutions that obstruct the path that leads persons to commit crimes- rendering prisons obsolete.


In a time where philosophy cannot be divorced from the material and multi-faceted condition of being, philosophers and activists like Angela Davis are trailblazers. While there is much to discern about the stances to be taken concerning the American punitive system, abolitionists like Angela Davis will continue to demolish the inherently racial and exploitative legacy of crime and punishment to refurbish America as the democracy it claims to be, one lecture at a time.


Citations (APA, 7th ed.): 


Davis, A.Y. (2005). Abolition Democracy.

Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are Prisons Obsolete?

Davis, A. Y. (2012). The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues.

Fisher, George (2003). Plea Bargaining’s Triumph: A History of Plea Bargaining in America.

Hirsch, Adam J. (1992). The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America.

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By Monisha ChoudharyBA Art HistoryMonisha is a researcher, writer, and artist pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and in Law from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She has been engaged in performance arts, as a performer and a facilitator; and takes a keen interest in philosophy and politics.