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Prisons are not the solution to societal problems

- By Buhle Zuma



Social justice activist and prison abolitionist, Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, delivered the keynote address on the opening night of the Antipode Foundation's 5th Institute for Geographies of Justice (IGJ) recently held at Wits University.

Gilmore, a professor of geography at the City University of New York is one of the radical geographers who descended on Wits for the very first Africa hosted IGJ, held on 22 – 25 June 2015. Her speech titled Extraction: Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence, Gilmore highlighted that she is fundamentally opposed to prisons as a form of punishment, and that high levels of incarceration contribute little to solving societal problems.

She is well known for her views on the topic and authored Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California.

“I am not pretending that crime doesn’t exist”, said Gilmore, who together with Professor Angela Davis founded Critical Resistance, a coalitional social movement fighting structural racism through the American prison-industrial complex.

According to Gilmore, America has approximately 2.5 million people in prison despite the decisively decreasing levels of crime since the 1980s.

What accounts for these numbers is the fact that “an arrest is likely to lead to a charge and it is likely to lead to imprisonment and the sentences are getting longer. That is why there are so many people in prison.”

She also asserted that state behaviour towards problems also plays a critical role in how citizens respond to challenges.

“It is my belief that the state models behaviour for the polity”. According to Gilmore, the US has entrenched the belief in its population that the way to solve a problem is by killing it, hence it has been at war for most of its history.

“The US is always at war - it has not been at war for only 22 years of its history,” noted Gillmore who drew links between US wars and abnormal national affairs.

Gilmore said homicide rates in the US increase every time the country goes to war and wins, suggesting a correlation between state and citizen behaviour.

“We cannot discount what the state – it models behaviour for the polity – people are trying to solve problems and they kill (the problems) but the problems don’t go away.”

The Antipode Foundation's 5th Institute for the Geographies of Justice explored topics such as: dis/possession and occupation; difference/differentiation; desire, affect, materiality; waste value; space, territoriality and nature; urban formations and spatial justice; knowledge, discourse and power, and the praxis of radical geography.

The event was co-hosted by the Wits Faculty of Humanities.