Bigger Than Incarceration: Angela Davis Talks Mass Criminalization, Mental Health and the War on Drugs

Angela DavisEarlier this month, iconic scholar, author and political activist Angela Davis joined a public conversation organized by the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss drug policy and criminal-justice discrimination in the United States, both issues of critical importance to African-American and Latino communities.

Moderated by DPA Senior Director Asha Bandele, the conversation moved beyond just the hard facts to tackle hard truths, one of which is that the so-called war on drugs is a large-scale storefront operation intended to disguise this nation’s war on black, brown and poor people, and that mass incarceration is but one strategy employed.

“In our own conversations at Drug Policy Alliance, we’ve wondered if ending mass incarceration was the right frame, or if we needed to push it deeper, if we needed to take a dive into the larger contradictions that are inherent in the question of mass criminalization,” Bandele shared at the start of the conversation. “The culture of punishment on which this nation was built … looms large in our lives today.”

During a town hall organized by the Drug Policy Alliance, Davis discussed how structural violence and the dehumanization of black and brown people are deeply embedded within the fabric of society.

Over the course of the hourlong conversation, which culminated in a question-and-answer period, Davis provided expansive and insightful responses on the need to broaden the boundaries around the ways we discuss oppression.

“The impact of this vast prison industry, this prison-industrial complex, on other institutions in our society is such that if we only focus on ending mass incarceration, we may forget that our schools, particularly in schools in poor communities, poor communities of color, reflect the impact of the prisonization of our society,” Davis said.

Davis also highlighted how slavery has shed its skin to become the punishment system we see in this country today:

In the aftermath of slavery, when one sees the convict-lease system develop, when one sees the transformation of some of the huge slave plantations into places where prisoners work, where convicts work, and of course Angola and others remain as witness to that connection between punishment and slavery and the mass incarceration in the 21st century.

I say this because one often forgets that slavery played a very important role in establishing the kind of punishment system that exists today. That means that the racism that we refer to is not simply the racism that is embedded in particular kinds of laws—and, of course, the drug laws, as Drug Policy Alliance has made us aware, have been a large driver in the contemporary increase in the numbers of people in prison—but the institution itself is grounded in slavery.

It would seem to me that the recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement causes us to reflect on the connection between our lives in the second decade of the 21st century and the history of slavery, and particularly the failure to entirely abolish the consequences of slavery. We are still living with those consequences today. I like to think of racism also as a way of acknowledging the fact that we continue to be haunted by the institutions connected with slavery.

Bandele made it a point to center how the war on drugs has severely impacted women. This country fetishizes violence against systemically disempowered and black bodies. And where sexual and state violence intersect, we also often find the bodies of black women. This was evidenced by the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the now former Oklahoma City police officer accused of raping and sexually assaulting 12 black women and one black girl. He was convicted on 18 of 36 charges against him.

Several of his victims were drug users and/or had criminal records, and it is clear that the war on drugs emboldened Holtzclaw to victimize black women and girls whom society too often throws away.

“Nobody really discusses the fact that 4 percent of all the women in the world live in the U.S., and yet 33 percent of all the incarcerated women live in the United States,” Bandele said. “What does it mean that we have just exponentially removed our mothers and our grandmothers and our sisters from our communities? What harm does that cause, especially black and brown communities?”

In response, Davis pointed out that “during the same period of time where the size of the world’s prison population increased by 10 percent, the size of the women’s prison population increased by over 40 percent.

“This is a major trend, and I’ve always felt that regardless of the numbers, however, there are issues that we discover by looking very closely at the predicament of women in prison as we understand the relationship between intimate violence, of which so many women have experienced, and institutional violence or state violence,” Davis continued.

“And issues that we’ve become aware of over the last period, especially since the campaign aroundCeCe McDonald in Minnesota, has been the question of trans women prisoners,” said Davis.

As previously reported by The Root, black inmates who identify as transgender women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates, with approximately 32 percent being raped in jail after being placed in male populations.

Additionally, male and female inmates with disabilities and/or psychological issues are also more likely to be sexually violated.

disorders-350According to a 2014 Vera Institute report, “On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” the prevalence of serious mental illness is two to four times higher in state prisons than in the general public. And two-thirds of inmates have a substance-abuse problem, compared with approximately 9 percent of the general public.

These troubling statistics go hand in hand with the anxiety, depression, substance abuse and poverty too often experienced by fractured families coping with the absence of loved ones, children, mothers and fathers, who have been targeted through overpolicing, mass incarceration and mass criminalization.

So how do we build a stronger bridge between health care advocates, including mental health, and activists fighting the war on drugs?

I asked Davis this question during the Q&A portion of the conversation. This was her response:

People are frequently incarcerated not only because they have mental or emotional difficulties, but the experience of imprisonment itself … especially solitary confinement … produces mental illness. I completely agree with your comment regarding the need for stronger bridges between the health care system and struggles against imprisonment. It might be interesting to look at the history of mental asylums and the relatively recent effort to abolish psychiatric institutionalization. And this was an important victory.

kirsten-west-savaliHowever, what did not occur with the closing of the huge mental facilities was the creation of a new set of institutions that would respond to the needs of people who have mental or emotional challenges, and we’re living with the consequences of that now. … When we talk about the possibility of closing down prisons, we cannot simply close down prisons, but we have to create the kind of institutions that will allow people to change and to heal and to develop.

Listen below to the entire conversation with Angela Davis.

Kirsten West Savali
The Root

About Kirsten West Savali

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and senior writer for The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. i’m at a loss of words over this situation. but at the same time, i am compelled to say something.