Letter to the Editor: Envisioning Abolition, Educating Against Incarceration

In the film “Visions of Abolition: From Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life,” longtime activist and distinguished professor emerita at the University of California Santa Cruz Angela Davis offered her own vision of prison abolition.

Appropriately, she contrasted incarceration with education. In that 2011 documentary film, Davis pointed out that one out of every 31 individuals is under some form of correctional agency control.

The massive resources required to maintain that level of control, she suggested, could be better devoted elsewhere like to education, for example.

“I always consider education as the first alternative to imprisonment,” Davis, who spoke at Southwestern College in Chula Vista in late March, said in the interview featured in the documentary. “If we had a better educational system and I’m not just talking about access to education; I’m talking about an educational system that teaches young people how to value knowledge, and how to live in that sphere where they cultivate the mind and how to take pleasure in that then most of the people who are in prison would not be there today.”

As Davis said in a speech at UCLA in 1969 delivered shortly after she was fired from her post by the UC Regents at the behest of then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan, the knowledge which education should nourish must “transcend the immediate political reality for one purpose: for the purpose of transforming it.”

In line with Davis’ vision, we will be hosting a screening of the aforementioned film on April 21 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in Storm Hall West 11 at San Diego State University. Following the film there will be a panel discussion focused on organizing against mass incarceration and on how the visions of prison abolition can be realized. The panel will feature people from People over Profits SD, Project Rebound SDSU, the Los Angeles chapter of the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, the Office of Restorative Justice with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the UCLA-based Justice Work Group, the Industrial Workers of the World Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project.

Our hope is that the event contributes to the transformative education capable of interrogating the legitimacy of a justice system based on punishment and retribution. We hope it can contribute to the production of new knowledge capable of informing the work necessary to eliminate the practice of attempting to address social harm in the U.S. by caging more than two million human beings. We assume that knowledge implies understanding that harm is inevitably reproduced when communities are weakened as a result of people being plucked from neighborhoods and put behind bars, damaging the lives of their loved ones and friends in the process. We hope we can educate each other about how best to repair that harm. And we hope we can learn how best to realize a vision of abolition in the present to transform the existing reality and render prisons part of the past.

Lydia P. Wood is a Ph.D Candidate in Geography at San Diego State University / University of California, Santa Barbara, an educator, and activist.

James K. Anderson, Ph.D., is a déclassé writer, journalist, scholar, social theorist, prison abolitionist and adjunct professor who is teaching at Mt. San Jacinto College in Menifee during the spring 2017 semester.

This letter has been updated to clarify that Angela Davis spoke at Southwestern College in late March.