Angela Davis Talks ‘Orange is the New Black,’ Prison Abolition

By Jamilah King May 08, 2014

Angela Davis, who’s back at UCLA 45 years after being fired, recently gave a wide-ranging interview with the Los Angeles Times. It’s an excerpted portion of what’s certainly a much longer transcript and touches on everything from communism to the genre of radical writing from the 1970s. But this part about "Orange is the New Black" stood out to me, in part because it’s a pop culture reference to the prison abolition work that Davis has done for decades:

Congress is working on prison-sentence reform. Many states have banned capital punishment. Isn’t this encouraging?

I’ve associated myself with the prison abolition movement; that does not mean I refuse to endorse reforms. There is a very important campaign against solitary confinement, a reform that is absolutely necessary. The difference resides in whether the reforms help to make life more habitable for people in prison, or whether they further entrench the prison-industrial complex itself. So it’s not an either-or situation.

What would a just prison system look like to you?

It’s complicated. Most of us in the 21st century abolitionist movement look to W.E.B. Du Bois’ critique about the abolition of slavery — that it was not enough simply to throw away the chains. The real goal was to re-create a democratic society that would allow for the incorporation of former slaves. [Prison abolition] would be about building a new democracy: substantive rights to economic sustenance, to healthcare; more emphasis on education than incarceration; creating new institutions that would tend to make prisons obsolete.

It is possible, but even [if it doesn’t happen], we can move to a very different kind of justice that does not require a retributive impulse when someone does something terrible.

Do you watch the prison-themed comedy-drama "Orange Is the New Black"?

I not only saw the series but I read [Piper Kerman’s] memoir. She has a much deeper analysis than one sees in the series, but as a person who has looked at the role of women’s prisons in visual culture, primarily films, I think [the series] isn’t bad. There are so many aspects that often don’t [appear in] depictions of people in those oppressive circumstances. "12 Years a Slave," for example — one thing I missed in that film was some sense of joy, some sense of pleasure, some sense of humanity.

Will this be on the syllabus for her graduate seminar this semester?