Opinion| Angela Davis exposes human rights abuses in US prisons

Marwa El- Shinawy
6 Min Read

We used to read about human rights violations by the American authorities in prisons outside the US, such as Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay. As a result, prisons in the US continued to enjoy a good reputation on the issue of human rights. Despite this, the biographies of African American political detainees reveal different facts that are worth reading.

A few days ago, Angela Davis, the most famous political prisoner in the US during the 1970s, released her autobiography, which focuses on her bitter experience in American prisons.

Marwa El-Shinawy
Dr Marwa El-Shinawy

Although the accusation levelled against her was a purely criminal charge under the name of committing some terrorist acts, the demonstrations of support for Angela Davis that swept the US in 1971 by black and white activists alike were emphatically confirming that the accusation against her was a political one and so was her trial.

In one of her articles about that period under the title ‘Political Prisoners, Prisons and Black Liberation’, Davis confirmed that “in this country, however, where the special category of political prisoners is not officially acknowledged, the political prisoner inevitably stands trial for a specific criminal offense, not for a political act. Often the so-called crime does not even have a nominal existence…The political act is defined as criminal to discredit radical and revolutionary movements. A political event is reduced to a criminal event to affirm the absolute invulnerability of the existing order.”


What is interesting about ‘Angela Davis: An Autobiography’ is that the author asserts that her goal in publishing these memoirs after more than 50 years is because they are very relevant to the present, as there has been very little political change since 1972.

For Angela Davis, incidents such as those of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are not the result of individual misconduct or bad or flawed police laws, but rather of a societal system that supports violence that has not changed until today. Therefore, the book is about state violence, police violence, and prison violence.

The book is full of facts that may surprise the reader, especially regarding how Angela Davis was arrested and dealt with in prison. The writer asserts that she was arrested by the FBI while she and her husband were staying in a hotel on trumped-up allegations. After the unfair investigations ended, she was sent to a prison isolated from the rest of the prisoners for fear of inciting the prisoners to revolution. Moreover, she was held in a prison designated for the mentally ill until she thought, ironically, that they considered her leftist political affiliations a form of mental illness.


The writer also depicts the suffering of prisoners, especially patients, and the failure to provide them with health care or the necessary treatment. This is in addition to the unsanitary conditions the cells, to the extent that she was staying with mice in the same cell, moving freely over her face and neck.

Describing the deteriorating condition of sick female prisoners and medical negligence in prisons, Davis says: “I was struck by their physical deterioration. Their bodies were marred with leprous-like sores. These were the abscesses caused by a dirty needle. Others had needle tracks all over their legs and arms and, because these veins had collapsed, they had begun to inject the drug into the veins in their necks.”


Davis also talked about the methods of torture inside a prison to which she was transferred at a later stage, the Marine County Jail. The gas chambers invented by the Nazis were the method of torture in that prison. “I knew that a gas chamber was waiting for us all. Then, a woman’s screams shattered the silence. In between her bloodcurdling screams, she seemed to be pleading: ‘Let me out of here! Let me out of here,’” she said. 


To a large extent, the book shows the US as a repressive state in which there is no room for justice. Davis asserts in the introduction to this exciting book that these diary entries serve an important and practical purpose, as they help everyone understand the political reality of the US, because she still hopes for change.

Marwa El-Shinawy: Assistant Professor at International American University for Specialised Studies (IAUS)

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