Women Outlaws: Politics of Gender and Resistance in the US Criminal Justice System

Mechthild Nagel, SUNY Cortland; nagelm@cortland.edu


            Prisons have always served the role of social control (Kurshan 1996).  Nobody has more acutely experience and theorized imprisonment as such as political prisoners.  This category includes people convicted due to their resistance to state policies and politics and those who become politicized while facing detention and/or long prison sentences and thus face further reprisals by the prison authorities.  For instance, if a convict’s utterance of the word “slave” is overheard by guards, she’ll get time in the “hole”—thirty days of solitary confinement.  However, the US government insists that it confines nobody for political conviction and that all so-called political prisoners (of which Amnesty International has noted some 150 persons) are duly convicted of a (terrorist) crime.  Yet, the US government’s claim is hardly credible, in particular in light of the existence of CIA run prisons which defy even US Supreme Court rulings, notably Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Rendered invisible, though, especially in light of the US personnel’s torture against Iraqi detainees, have been Iraqi women who have also been sexually abused, raped, humiliated and even disappeared, as the human rights groups International Women Count Network, Black Women’s Rape Action Project, and Women against Rape have charged (Groves 2004).  Photographs of their tortured bodies have appeared on the internet, yet few reports have made light of the women’s predicament, as if to take for granted that in a time of war women’s right to dignity, fair trial and humane treatment are rendered null and void.  Women and feminist prisoners rights activists the world over report that women’s imprisonment is always an afterthought.  This is why it is important to look at women’s autobiographies, to study prison conditions and resistance to repression from their accounts.

            In this paper I’ll focus on the revolutionary spirit and commitment of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur—two iconic Black women and imprisoned intellectuals, who were hounded by the state (US) in the 1970s and beyond.  I wish to highlight their views on slavery, on freedom, and abolitionism.  How is it that both these women, passionate in their pursuit for social justice for oppressed peoples became political outlaws?

Bio of Angela Yvonne Davis: Born 1944, in Birmingham, AL.  She studied French at Brandeis University (BA) and philosophy in Frankfurt, West Germany, coming back to the US to study with Herbert Marcuse at UC San Diego;  she earned a master's degree from the University of California, San Diego, returning to Germany for her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Humboldt University of Berlin, GDR.  Davis taught philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, during the late 1960s, during which time she also was a member of the Communist Party USA and associated with the Black Panther Party.  The University of California fired her from her job in 1969 because of her membership in the Communist Party.  She was later rehired after community uproar over the decision.  Davis ran for Vice President on the Communist ticket in 1980 and 1984 along with Gus Hall.  In 1970 Davis became the third woman to appear on the FBI's Most Wanted List when she was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide, due to her alleged participation in a prisoners’ escape attempt from Marin County Hall of Justice.  She evaded the police for two months before being captured, tried, and acquitted of all charges eighteen months later.  Allegedly, Johnathan Jackson, younger brother of prison inmate and cause célèbre, George Jackson, had stolen the guns from Angela's home to use in the escape attempt.  While being held in the Women's Detention Center in New York City, Davis got on well with other inmates and with the help of her outside supporters was able to mobilize the prisoners, in particular, helping to initiate a bail program for indigent prisoners.  Initially, she was segregated from the general population in deplorable conditions, but with the help of her excellent legal team was able in short order obtain a Federal court order squashing that practice.  The excuse was that prisoners might be hostile to her, but, in fact, most of the other prisoners were friendly and supportive.  In 1972, she was exonerated on all charges.  In 1972 John Lennon and Yoko Ono released the song "Angela" about her and Rolling Stones released "Sweet Black Angel" which chronicled her legal problems and agitated for her release.  When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he vowed that Angela Davis as avowed communist would never hold a teaching position in the Cal state system.  However, in 1991, she was appointed a professor in the History of Consciousness Program at UC Santa Cruz and became presidential chair of African and Feminist Studies in 1994.  Prof. Davis is active in the prison abolitionist movement and has recently written about the conditions of women prisoners.

Bio on Assata: Born in 1947 in NewYork, Assata Shakur became an activist while attending Manhattan Community College in the mid-1960s and after graduation, she joined the Black Panther Party and then the Black Liberation Army, an underground military formation.  Being targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, she was apprehended in a shootout on the New Jersey turnpike in 1973, where she was seriously injured.  Despite medical evidence that she could not have fired a shot given her wounds from police fire, Shakur was convicted by an all white jury in a trial marked by gross legal violations (kangaroo court).  She was acquitted of bank robbery charges stemming from other trials. During much of her pre-trial phase, she was held in men’s maximum security prisons. She spent two of the six years in prison in solitary confinement.  Shakur was broken out of prison in 1979 and now lives in exile in Cuba where she received political asylum in 1984.


            Joy James (2005) discusses the rich tradition of slave narratives, i.e. autobiographies written by former slaves, who cherish their newly found freedom (from chains).  Prisoners liken their lot to slavery (to a slaveship that doesn’t move) and since 1865, a new genre of neo-slave narrative was born—ranging from conservative and liberal to radical and revolutionary (xxii).  On the one hand, these narratives demand emancipation (parole, clemency) and on the other hand, they cry out for freedom—from a repressive, racist, sexist and capitalist system; the latter could be deemed radical, and it is in the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur that we find expressions of radical neo-slave narrations.  In fact, to this day Shakur (born Joanne Chesimard) considers herself a run-away slave who is marooned in Cuba.  That the state hasn’t forgotten this fugitive slave was recently made clear in former governor of New Jersey’s call for a bounty on her head, dead or alive.  But Cuba has not complied in extraditing her.  On May 2, 2005, her name was added to the FBI's Domestic Terrorist List with a $1 million reward for assistance in her capture.

            In both Shakur’s and Davis’ autobiographies the specter of legal proceduralism is discussed which distinguishes their accounts from other neoslave narratives.  Davis knows from her own experience with Jim Crow and from her historical understanding of the racial underpinnings of American jurisprudence, that a naïve faith in the legal system would be displaced, and therefore, political activism, e.g. by conscientizing the people around a cause, is the most effective means to transform the system or, at least to influence the judge through political pressure—after all, she was granted bail because the judge’s office couldn’t handle the flood of international mail of bail support (335).  At the same time, along with her radical lawyers, she utilized the tools of liberal proceduralism, to win her freedom and other political prisoners.  But the internal conflict accompanies her political deliberations.  In her advocacy work for the imprisoned Soledad brothers and then for her own case of imprisonment, while awaiting trial, Davis deliberates incessantly whether it is worth to participate within the legal confines and how to mount radical political protest against “legal” injustice.  For example, with respect to pursuing bail she deemed “the political content of the bail issue too weak.  It did not permit people to express their resistance to the system of repression, which was not only behind my own imprisonment but was why so many others were languishing in prison” (336, her emphasis).  Celebrating an early victory of having been granted bail, she immediately retreats to apologize in the face of many poor prisoners who are framed by the system and have no supporters’ network to bail them out.  Nevertheless, she concedes that she had misjudged the yearlong bail campaign, because it did galvanize and politicize so many people who may just wanted to see that bail was granted to her.  “Once they had been exposed to the realities of the prison and judicial systems, they were forced to give serious consideration to the political repression we spoke about” (1988, 336). 

            This evaluation shows that Davis pursues a macroscopic perspective (of systemic injustice) rather than an individualist viewpoint.  Precisely, for this reason, political prisoners, such as Davis or Mumia Abu-Jamal, are deemed dangerous by the prison wardens.  They become a security risk and are swiftly placed in solitary confinement far away from the general population whom they might organize (although ironically, Davis was told that she received solitary because other prisoners might attack her).  Yet, understanding the macroscopic aspect of oppression does not license one to a radical point of view.  Abu-Jamal is a case in point.  In his first book, Live from Death Row, he describes how difficult it is to shake of a naïve faith in the system and in American jurisprudence.  After his wrongful conviction, he believed that justice would prevail.  Abu-Jamal studied carefully Black history, and as a journalist, he was aware of police brutality and of frame-ups of countless Black and poor folk, not least of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia, whose trials he covered as a journalist.  “Even in the face of this relentless wave of antiblack state terror, I thought my appeals would be successful” (xvi-xvii, his emphasis).  A few years ago, his death sentence was indeed thrown out (on a technicality), but he still faces life imprisonment and importantly, he has not been allowed to leave death row (for his own safety, one might opine!).  No doubt, the prison officials think of him as a Black messiah and if they let him mingle with the brothers, it might just incite another Attica rebellion.  Similarily, Davis, who was imprisoned awaiting trial during the uprising, was in solitary confinement for most of her imprisonment, especially after the Attica prison uprising.  Assata, too, was told that solitary was for her own protection, and when she told that to fellow prisoners at Ricker’s Island, they laughed.            Assata, like Mumia, had some initial—and what she calls, naïve—faith in the white court system.  “[I] had not seen enough to accept the fact that there was absolutely no justice whatsoever for Black people in amerika” (70). 


            In Eyes of the Rainbow, by Cuban film maker Gloria Rolanda (1997), former Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur talks about her status as a 20th Century run-away slave—an apt self-description given the bounty for her issued by Governor Whitman; she recounts her jail term, at times spent in male prisons, where sharp shooters’ guns were trained onto her cell 24 hours a day.  Her case won international attention, when a petition was sent to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1978. Shakur was broken out of prison by Marilyn Buck, Silvia Baraldini and Susan Rosenberg[1] in 1979.  In her autobiography Assata Shakur interweaves narratives of coming of age in the 1960s with accounts about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, the several court trials she was subjected to, and the disregard for the law by the authorities at every stage.  She contextualizes the repression, the torture, the interrogation, and the blatant illegalities on account of being a political detainee.  At the time of her arrest, she was active in the Black Liberation Army, but it was not till her confinement that she learnt about the ideological function of imprisonment.  Confronted by a guard who ordered her to work, Shakur disobeys, “You can’t make me work.”  The guard’s response was “No, you’re wrong.  Slavery was outlawed with the exception of prisons.  Slavery is legal in prisons” (64).  Shakur re-read the 13th Amendment and realized that racism is part and parcel of the capitalist system.

That explained why jails and prisons all over the country are filled to the brim with Black and third world people, why so many Black people can’t find a job on the streets … Once you’re in prison, there are plenty of jobs, and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you up and throw you in the hole. … Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and third world people (64-5).

Actually, it seems to me that the guard’s reasoning wasn’t quite correct, because at the time of that confrontation, Assata was still a detainee, not convicted of a crime. 

Imprisonment radicalized her thinking about “aberrations” in the system. In a moving exchange with another prisoner, she shares her notion of “freedom”:


[I’d] rather be in a minimum security prison or on the streets than in the maximum security prison in here. The only difference between here and the streets is that one is maximum security and the other is minimum security. The police patrol our communities just like the guards patrol here. I don’t have the faintest idea how it feels to be free (60).


Shakur’s autobiography, which chronicles her journey from childhood to being marooned in Cuba, is a very important example of a radical neo-slave narrative.  There is no genuine experience of freedom in a country that holds on to the vestiges of slavery; there is no justice in a criminal justice system that indicts and criminalizes people for their political beliefs, whether they belong to the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Black Panther movement, the American Indian movement, etc.

            As Shakur learnt in prison, the carceral regime is the uncanny metaphor for a new form of enslavement, particularly in the United States.  This is made poignantly clear in Davis’s article “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison” where she argues that “[t]he abolition of slavery … corresponds to the authorization of slavery as punishment (in James 1998, 97).  Davis provocative statements, such as “One has a greater chance of going to jail or prison if one is a young black man than if one is actually a law-breaker” (James 1998, 105), may serve as a rallying-ground for pressing on with an abolitionist movement begun with the struggle against slavery.  She notes that “prison needs to be abolished as the dominant mode of addressing social problems that are better solved by other institutions and other means.  The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape” (215). 

            True to form as an activist intellectual who is witnessing injustice, Davis emphasizes the untold anonymous people and the progressive movement that struggled to set her free in 1972.  So instead of celebrating the heroic attempt of “a single Black woman successfully fend[ing] off the repressive might of the state” she credits her supporters in her updated introduction of her “autobiography”: “Certainly the victory we won when I was acquitted of all charges can still be claimed today [in 1988] as a milestone in the work of grassroots movements” (1988 ix).  Even though writing merely about her own life would be appropriate to do in an autobiographical act, this book of a twenty-eight year old emphasizes grassroots achievements over the pitfalls of a singular heroic narrative, as Davis explains in the second edition of the book.  Davis couldn’t conceive of what countless other Black revolutionaries have done—leaving the country while she was underground—after the shoot out in the Marin County courthouse: “But each time I considered going abroad, the thought of being indefinitely exiled in some other country was even more horrible than the idea of being locked up in jail.  At least in jail I would be closer to my people, closer to the movement” (1988, 12, emphasis added). 

            Before winning acquittal, she vows that her life would be spend dedicated to not just to freeing political prisoners but to “use my life to uphold the cause of my sisters and brothers behind walls” (328).  In her essay “Political Prisoners, Prisons and Black Liberation,” which she wrote in jail, Davis alludes to the problematic differentiation of social and political prisoners, by suggesting that prisoners of color increasingly consider themselves as political prisoners: “They contend that they are political prisoners in the sense that they are largely the victims of an oppressive politico-economic order, swiftly becoming conscious of the causes underlying their victimization” (1971, in James 1998, p. 47).  And her vow of solidarity has been unwaivering for over 30 years; she has provided leadership for the importance of centering a social critique on prisons/penality rather than marginalizing it, and for organizing a critical resistance movement to stem the tide of new prison construction by educating the youth, prisoners’ families and segments of the left to rally to the cause of abolition.  Assata Shakur, too, while facing the limitations of direct involvement with her people due to exile, has contributed to the abolitionist movement.  It was awe inspiring hearing her taped voice at the Riverside Church in Harlem in 2001 on occasion of the Critical Resistance East Conference.  It is important to keep Assata Shakur in our conscience:  there’s a Chicago-based group called “Hands off Assata!” which educates prison rights activists about the ongoing danger Shakur faces for being sought by the US government—as a fugitive slave and newly labeled “terrorist”.

            A final note: sometimes a perception among some prison activists prevails that women’s lot in prisons is fairly easy.  Shakur’s  treatment by the police was extreme, but not an exception.  The history of US women’s imprisonment shows that when the “ladies” rose up and protested the repression, they were brutalized, sent in the hole or, worse, to behavior modification units for the criminally insane (Kushnan 1996).  More recently, uppity women are sent to the super-tech control Shawnee Unit, which was established to “control, isolate, and neutralize women who, for varying reasons, pose either a political, escape, or disruption threat”.  It has been reserved for women political prisoners and prisoners of war (Baraldini et al. 1996).  None of the political prisoners moved there ever had an infraction of hurting another prisoner.  Posing a political threat is the closest the US system of criminal injustices comes to label somebody a political prisoner.



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[1]    As Joy James (1999) notes few people know about these women revolutionaries who are serving life sentences for their part in breaking out Assata (89). Baraldini and Rosenberg have since been released.