Number of Aborigines in prison stuns activist

Date: July 22 2005

By Liz Gooch
the Age

Despite spending 16 months in jail after being on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list, American civil rights activist Angela Davis was shocked when she first visited an Australian women's prison.

She was stunned by the high number of Aborigines in prison, which she likened to the high proportion of African-American prisoners in her homeland.

"As someone who spent a small portion of my life behind bars, I was reminded of the experiences I had over 30 years ago... and reminded of the fact that things have not really gotten any better. As a matter of fact, they are far worse," she said.

Now a professor of philosophy at the University of California Santa Cruz, she became synonymous with the American civil rights movement when she was arrested for murder in 1970. Professor Davis was accused of planning the kidnapping of three San Quentin prisoners from a courthouse and supplying the gun that killed four people during the incident.

She gained notoriety for her affiliation with the militant Black Panthers and membership of the Communist Party. Professor Davis spent two months in hiding before she was arrested and held in custody pending trial for murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. After a worldwide campaign, she was acquitted.

Racism may have become less overt in the 30 years since Professor Davis took up the fight for social justice, but racial barriers remain, she says.

"One can say people are equal before the law . . . but at the same time racism is inscribed in the very structures of the institutions, the structures of the prison, the structures of the university, so that race still matters a great deal," she said. In California, there were five times as many African-Americans in prison as attended university, she said.

Professor Davis is in Melbourne for a conference organised by lobby group Sisters Inside. She said prisons had become "dumping grounds" for people with mental health problems after psychiatric institutions were closed.

"You could argue that prisons serve as a dumping ground for people with all kinds of problems - health problems, housing problems, employment problems..." she said. "What the prison does is to shut away those people who have those problems so that the larger society no longer has to address the social problems."

While lamenting today's injustices, Professor Davis, says much progress has been made.

"I certainly have no regrets," she said. "I think the work that those of us did 30 years ago has had a profound impact on the way people think today. It may not have changed the structures and the institutions, it may not have revolutionised the entire globe, but you can see enormous changes."