Week Six: April 19-23

•        Reading Assignment: By Wednesday, read the following sections of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California: Chapter 5: Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (p. 181-240); Chapter 6: What Is to Be Done? (p. 241-48); Epilogue: Another Bus (p. 249-51).

•        Blackboard Discussion Thread: By 10pm on Wednesday, April 21, you should post a comment on our discussion thread for Chapters 5 & 6 and the Epilogue of Golden Gulag. Your comment should be 250-500 words long. You can comment on anything that you found interesting, important, confusing, or controversial in the reading for this week.












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University of California Press

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson, 1950–.

Golden gulag : prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in

globalizing California / Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

p. cm—(American crossroads ; 21).

Includes bibliographical references and index.

isbn-13: 978-0-520-22256-4 (cloth : alk. paper)

isbn-10: 0-520-22256-3 (cloth : alk. paper)

isbn-13: 978-0-520-24201-2 (pbk. : alk. paper)

isbn-10: 0-520-24201-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Prisons—California. 2. Prisons—Economic

aspects—California. 3. Imprisonment—California.

4. Criminal justice, Administration of—California.

5. Discrimination in criminal justice administration—California.

6. Minorities—California. 7. California—Economic conditions.

I. Title. II. Series.

HV9475.C2G73 2007

365′.9794—dc22 2006011674

Manufactured in the United States of America

15 14 13 12

This book is printed on New Leaf EcoBook 60, containing 60%

postconsumer waste, processed chlorine free; 30% de-inked recycled

fiber, elemental chlorine free; and 10% FSC-certified virgin fiber, to-

tally chlorine free. EcoBook 60 is acid free and meets the minimum

requirements of ansi/astm d 5634–01 (Permanence of Paper).1

11 10 9 8 7 6 5






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List of Illustrations / i x

List of Tables / x i

Acknowledgments / x i i i

List of Abbreviations / x x i

prologue: The Bus / 1 1. Introduction / 5 2. The California Political Economy / 3 0 3. The Prison Fix / 87 4. Crime, Croplands, and Capitalism / 1 2 8 5. Mothers Reclaiming Our Children / 1 8 1 6. What Is to Be Done? / 2 4 1 epilogue: Another Bus / 2 4 9

Notes / 2 5 3

Bibliography and References / 2 8 1

Index / 3 5 5




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1. California crime index, 1952–1995 / 8 2. Revised California crime index, 1952–2000 / 9 3. Defense prime contracts and manufacturing jobs,

1972–1992 / 4 4 4. Population growth by region, 1980–1990 / 47 5. Growth in the ratio of property/proprietors’ (profit) income

to total income, 1977–1996 / 5 9 6. Rise in interest income as a percentage of property/propri-

etors’ income and decline in the prime rate, 1980–1989 / 6 1 7. California farmland and irrigated land, in millions of acres,

1945–1987 / 6 6 8. Votes cast for governor and general fund expenditures,

1978–1994 / 8 5


California state adult prisons / 1 0

i x




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1. Employees in Principal California Manufacturing Indus- tries, 1980–1995 / 5 1

2. California Population, Labor Force, Jobs, Unemployment, and Prisoners, 1973–2000 / 7 3

3. Three Waves of Structural Change in Sources of California Tax Revenues, 1967–1989 / 8 2

4. CDC Prisoner Population by Race/Ethnicity / 1 1 1 5. CDC Commitments by Controlling Offense / 1 1 2 6. Mechanization of Cotton Production, 1940–1980 / 1 4 1 7. Overview of Kings County Agriculture, 1982–1992 / 1 4 4 8. Annual Change in Corcoran Housing Stock and Vacancy

Rate, Selected Years / 1 5 9

x i




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Golden Gulag is a late first book—late in my life, late to the press, and so late in the twentieth century that it appears well into the twenty-first. In some ways, the contents are old news, but alas not old enough to have become mere bad memories or the stuff of history to learn from. Over the years, as I’ve wrestled with the questions and evidence that shape the book, I’ve had so much help from so many people that this section of the volume should, by rights, be longer than any chapter and contain far more entries than the bibliography. However, well into my second half- century on this troubled planet, I’m as forgetful as I am in- debted—and hopeful that if you don’t find your name here, you’ll forgive the oversight. And may all, named or not, excuse the errors.

Poor Neil Smith. As Geography Department chair at Rutgers, he generously accepted a cranky middle-aged activist packing a couple of drama degrees and a headful of social theory to be his Ph.D. student and got plenty of drama in return. He also made me think systematically about society and space, accepted my for-

x i i i




mulation for what happened, why, and to what end—and then made me prove it to him, revision after revision, in my disserta- tion. We fought a lot. We also celebrated often, and I’m grateful to Neil and to Cindi Katz for embracing both Gilmores the mo- ment we arrived at New Brunswick, for wining and dining and throwing parties for us for four years, and making me a scholar- activist.

At Rutgers, Professors Leela Fernandes, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Bob Lake, Ann Markusen, Susan Fainstein, John Gillis, and Caridad Souza taught me to work across disciplines; Leela, in particular, models the analytical courage interdisciplinarity de- mands. I hope Susan will accept this book in lieu of the paper I owe her.

When I headed off to Rutgers, my Los Angeles compañeras— especially Theresa Allison, Geri Silva, Pauline Milner, and Donna Warren—in Mothers Reclaiming Our Children wished me well, and they always welcomed me back to the fold—ex- pecting me always to bring useful knowledge and help make their knowledge useful.

A coalition sparked by Mothers ROC and Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS) expanded statewide thanks to the relentless energy of Geri Silva, Gail Blackwell, Barbara Brooks, Sue Rheams, Claudia Marriott, Julia Gonzales, Mary Avanti, Doug Kieso, Dennis Duncan, Carmen Ewell, and Christy Johnson, among many other tireless people.

My capacity to think theoretically, but speak practically, I owe to the stern sisterly tutelage of my Wages for Housework men- tors, Margaret Prescod and Selma James.

Without Mike Davis there would be no Golden Gulag. He shared ideas, research, and resources, pointed me toward Moth-

x i v A C K N O W L E D G M E N TS



ers ROC and Corcoran, asked plenty of great questions, read the manuscript thoroughly, and also showed me the practical con- nections between analytical, political, and pedagogical creativity. Years ago, when neither of us had a proper job, we shook our graying heads in dismay at a future of endless adjuncting. Now we both have steady jobs; who knew?

George Lipsitz, Dave Roediger, Robin D. G. Kelley, Don Mitchell, Beth Richie, Ed Soja, Audrey Kobayashi, Andrea Smith, Lauren Berlant, Lakshman Yapa, Cindi Katz, Greg Hooks, Amy Kaplan, George Sánchez, Chris Newfield, Fred Moten, Devra Weber, Barbara Christian, Bruce Franklin, An- gela Y. Davis, Wendy Brown, Cathy Cohen, Judith Butler, Wah- neema Lubiano, Steve Martinot, Joy James, Linda Evans, Cheryl Harris, Joan Dayan, Mike Merrill, Paul Gilroy, Vron Ware, Peter Linebaugh, Bobby Wilson, Cedric Robinson, Elizabeth Robinson, Agnes Moreland Jackson, Sue E. Houchins, Deborah Santana (who set me straight on my working title “Sunshine Gulag” and suggested “Golden,” lest anyone think the book was about Florida), and, more than anyone, A. Sivanandan and Stu- art Hall indelibly influenced how I think: each fiercely demon- strates how learning well is a generous art.

During graduate school, we students—Laura Liu, Rachel Herzing, John Antranig Kasbarian, Curtis Frietag, Melina Pat- terson, Lisa Lynch, Alex Weheliye (who made me think about land!), Yong-Sook Lee, Marlen Llanes, Nicole Cousino, and Ralph Saunders—formed communities of purpose that still bind us in our commitment to live the change.

I’d never have spent a minute, much less six years, at Berke- ley were it not for the interventions, encouragement, friendship, and mentoring of Dick Walker, Gill Hart, and Carol Stack. I also

A C K N O W L E D G M E N TS x v



had the fortune to share work-in-progress with amazing col- leagues—Jean Lave, Pedro Noguera, Dan Perlstein, Barrie Thorne, Harley Shaiken, Allan Pred, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Elaine Kim, Michael Omi, Pat Hilden, José David Saldívar, Jeff Romm, John Hurst, Caren Kaplan, and my dearest Cal pal Kurt Cuffey. Delores Dillard, Jahleezah Eskew, Nat Vonnegut, Carol Page, and Dan Plumlee made life easy for the bureaucratically challenged and, along with Don Bain and Darin Jensen, prove that staff are the backbone and conscience of academia.

The students of Carceral Geographies at Berkeley dutifully studied the manuscript and, integrating their readings with am- bitious fieldwork, concluded every fall semester with group re- search projects full of excellent evidence and surprising insights.

The embarrassment of riches of wonderful Berkeley graduate students who inspired and challenged me around many a semi- nar table include Clem Lai, Dylan Rodriguez, Frank Wilderson, Micia Mosely, Judith Kaf ka, Sora Han, Sara Clarke Kaplan, Mark Hunter, Priya Kandaswamy, Nari Rhee, Jenna Loyd, Ethan Johnson, Chris Neidt, Wendy Cheng, Kysa Nygreen, Juan DeLara, Judy Han, Trevor Paglen, Jen Casolo, Brinda Sarathy, Joe Bryan, Sylvia Chan, Amanda LaShaw, Kiko Casique, and Kirstie Dorr.

With patience, brilliance, and skill, four research assistants— Nari Rhee, Dana Kaplan, Ari Wohlfeiler, Pete Spannagle— moved the work forward.

Many exemplary people made research possible, especially the research librarians at Alexander Library at Rutgers and the Uni- versity Research Library at UCLA. Two print journalists, Dan Morain of the Los Angeles Times, and Jeannette Todd of the Cor- coran Journal, gave me time and insights; Morain’s exemplary

x v i A C K N O W L E D G M E N TS



work on California prisons is a starting point for any serious stu- dent of the subject, as is the investigative reporting by Mark Arax and Mark Gladstone. Public servants Don Pauley of Corcoran, Melissa Harriman of Avenal, Ed Tewes of Modesto, and Bernie Orozco of the now defunct Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction and Operation provided crucial guidance without hesitation. Paula Burbach at the California Department of Corrections cheerfully responded to inquiries.

Some of the research for this book received support from a Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture grad- uate fellowship; a Ford dissertation fellowship; a University of California at Berkeley chancellor’s postdoctoral fellowship; and fellowships from the University of California Humanities Re- search Institute and the Open Society Institute.

At the University of California Humanities Research Insti- tute, Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, David Theo Goldberg, Sandra Baringer, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and Avery Gordon engaged in spirited collaborative study and fieldwork; we have a book to make from that experience.

American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California is a dream job. I am especially grateful to George Sánchez, Laura Pulido, and Fred Moten for friendship and men- toring, to all my colleagues for their trust, and to Sonia Rod- riguez, Kitty Lai, and Sandra Jones—along with Billie Shotlow and Onita Morgan-Edwards in Geography—for their skillful and good-humored staffing.

I’ve shared parts of this work with many scholars whose sharp insights rapidly improved my thinking, thanks to the support of sponsoring institutions: the National University of Singapore, University of Washington, University of Chicago, the University

A C K N O W L E D G M E N TS x v i i



of Texas at Austin, Johns Hopkins, the Claremont Colleges, Scripps College, Queens University (CAN), UC Irvine, the Soci- ety for Cultural Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the Social Science Re- search Council, New York University, City University of New York, UCLA, the Brecht Forum, Brown, and Yale.

And then there’s the generosity of activists—a constant caring regard for doing things both right and well. The principal orga- nizations I work in and depend on are the California Prison Moratorium Project, Critical Resistance, and the Central Cali- fornia Environmental Justice Network. In these and other groups, many thanks to Tom Quinn, Catherine Campbell, the late Holbrook Teter, Michelle Foy, Sarah Jarmon, Ellen Barry, Bo Brown, Karen Shain, Peter Wagner, Brigette Sarabi, Tracy Huling, Kevin Pranis, Dorsey Nunn, Eddie Ellis, Naomi Swin- ton, Joe Kaye, Ajulo Othow, Naneen Karraker, Laura Magnani, Jason Ziedenberg, Deborah Peterson Small, Jonathan Wilson, Lois Ahrens, John Mataka, Rosenda Mataka, Sandra Meraz, Yedithza Vianey Nuñez, Joe Morales, Luke Cole, Bradley Angel, Jason Glick, Amy Vanderwarker, Lani Riccobuono, Deb- bie Reyes, Leonel Flores, Dana Kaplan, Ari Wohlfeiler, Rachel Herzing, and the activist’s activist Rose Braz.

At the University of California Press, Linda Norton and Monica McCormick did everything possible to move this book into print . . . and Niels Hooper did the impossible. Suzanne Knott and Peter Dreyer are patient and thorough editors who taught me a lot about writing to be read.

My brothers, Courtland, Peter, and Jon, and their families, have waited impatiently, as have my friends who are so close as to be fictive kin: Howard Singerman, Janet Ray, Brackette

x v i i i A C K N O W L E D G M E N TS



Williams, Allen Feldman, Barbara Harlow, Sid Lemelle, Salima Lemelle, Salim Lemelle, the late and always missed Glen Thompson, Rachel Herzing, Avery Gordon, Chris Newfield, Laura Liu, Clyde Woods, Mike Murashige, Laura Pulido, Julia Gonzales, Annie Blum, and Rose Braz helped me develop my ca- pacities, while demanding, singly and in chorus: “Write it down! Send it in!”

My great regret is that my late father, Courtland Seymour Wilson, tireless activist, self-educated working-class intellectual, honest man, won’t have this book on his towering stack of things to read next; he and my beautiful mother, Ruth Isabel Herb Wil- son, sent me out young to do antiracist work, let me be a reader and dreamer, and always welcomed their prodigal daughter home. Finally, my husband and best friend, Craig Gilmore, should be listed as co-author of this book; so much of the think- ing, and more than half the suffering of it, was his.

A C K N O W L E D G M E N TS x i x



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AICCU Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities

BJS Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics BPP Black Panther Party BRC California Blue Ribbon Commission on Inmate

Population and Management CCPOA California Correctional Peace Officers Associ-

ation CDC California Department of Corrections CDF California Department of Finance CDF-CEI California Department of Finance, California

Economic Indicators

CEZ California enterprise zone CO corrections officer; prison guard DOD Department of Defense EDD California Employment Development Depart-

ment ERC Equal Rights Congress

x x i




FACTS Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes FIRE finance, insurance, and real estate sector GOB general obligation bond GSP gross state product JfJ Justice for Janitors JLCPCO Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Con-

struction and Operations LAO California Legislative Analyst’s Office LAPD Los Angeles Police Department LRB lease revenue bond LULUs locally unwanted land uses MAPA Mexican American Political Alliance Mothers ROC Mothers Reclaiming Our Children NAIRU non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemploy-

ment NIMBY not in my back yard PIA [California] Prison Industry Authority PRCC [California] Prison Reform Conference Com-

mittee ROC Mothers Reclaiming Our Children SPWB California State Public Works Board UFW United Farm Workers

x x i i A B B R E V I AT I O N S



O ne midnight in the middle of April, late in the twentieth century, a bus pulled out of the Holman Methodist Church parking lot. Traveling a short way along the northern boundary of South Central Los Angeles, it geared up a ramp into the web of state and federal highways that con-

nect California’s diverse industrial, agricultural, and recreational landscapes into the fifth-largest economy in the world. On the bus, forty women, men, and children settled in for the seven-hour journey north to Sacramento and the state capitol.

A dream crowd rode for freedom: red, black, brown, yellow, and white; mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, chil- dren, lovers, and friends; gay men and lesbians; interracial fam- ilies; English, Spanish, Tagalog, Arabic, Polish, and Hebrew speakers; Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Quaker. Their diversity embodied some 150 years of Cali- fornia history and more than 300 years of national anxieties and antagonisms. But the riders didn’t worry about it; they got on the






bus because of their sameness: employed, disabled, or retired working people, with little or no discretionary income, whose goal was freedom for their relatives serving long sentences be- hind bars.

The dream riders were summoned by a nightmare, made pal- pable by the terrifying numbers of prisoners and prisons pro- duced during the past generation, while we were all, presumably, awake. Just as real was the growing grassroots activism against the expanded use of criminalization and cages as catchall solu- tions to social problems.

In order to realize their dream of justice in individual cases, the riders decided, through struggle, debate, failure, and re- newal, that they must seek general freedom for all from a system in which punishment has become as industrialized as making cars, clothes, or missiles, or growing cotton. Against the odds, they had come to activism—acting out, in the details of modest practices, the belief that “we shall overcome” the deep divisions so taken for granted in apartheid America. In other words, they shared more than an interest: purpose made them ride.

Some snoozed. Some played cards. Some talked about who would join them on the statehouse steps, who would sit with them in the Senate Committee on Public Safety hearing room, and what best strategy would persuade a prisoner-hostile leg- islative committee majority to amend California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law. Some watched through the window, with an intensity suggesting that the night might reveal an answer. In- stead, what they saw were landscapes of labor, living, and leisure stretching out beyond the horizon. Leaving Los Angeles, the bus traveled up the broad old industrial corridor’s central artery. Al- though the city is still the manufacturing capital of the United

2 P R O LO G U E



States, the mix and remuneration of jobs making things has changed drastically in the past twenty years. Auto and primary steel are mostly gone, replaced by apparel and rebar.

On Interstate 5, the great road over the Tehachapi Mountains, the bus passed endless residential developments and signs tout- ing “business friendly” regions in the northern reaches of Los Angeles County before slipping into the darkness of the Angeles National Forest. The federal interstates enabled suburbanization of both residence and industry and helped secure California’s his- torical dominance in the military-industrial complex. Indeed, for most of the families on the bus, overt wars—World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—and covert struggles—Jim Crow Missis- sippi and Louisiana—were the forces that had pushed and pulled them to Southern California to remake their lives, as long-distance migrants must.

Rolling down the long grade into the Great Central Valley, some of the riders speculated about the gargantuan pumping sta- tions that propel water gathered from the state’s northern and east- ern regions over the mountains to quench the Southland’s thirst. And yet although the water courses up out of the valley, a lot re- mains to irrigate the state’s agricultural immensity. Indeed, while agriculture is only 3 percent of gross state product (GSP), Califor- nia ranks first in the United States in agricultural production.

They stopped in Bakersfield to pick up more people: a farm- worker, an unemployed journalist, some prisoners’ mothers tak- ing an unpaid day off work and contributing from their slim wages toward the $1,000 charter cost.

Outside Bakersfield, darkness drew in again around the Thomas-built coach. A small group of riders, sitting in the back, started to count sightings of intensely golden glows that eerily

T H E B U S 3



poked depth into the flat blackness. These concentrations of light in farmland are many of California’s new prisons: cities of men, and sometimes women, that lie next to the dim towns that host them. Some passengers whispered, their words recorded as breath on glass: “Donny’s over there.” “Hello Richard.” “I won- der if Angel’s sleeping. I told him we’d pass by.” The small fogs cleared as the bus labored on.

Other buses make this journey every day from central Los An- geles, leaving not from churches but rather from courts and jails. Their destinations are the old or new prisons—those that cluster along Highway 99 and make it a prison alley and others further afield, from the sturdy perimeter of fortresses along the California-Mexico border in the south up into Indian country at Susanville and Crescent City at the Oregon line. Nine hundred miles of prisons: an archipelago of concrete and steel cages, thirty- three major prisons (see map on page 10) plus fifty-seven smaller prisons and camps, forty-three of the total built since 1984.

Arriving in Sacramento, the riders joined their allies from other parts of the state for a prayer breakfast and a rally on the capitol steps. Then the day’s principal activity began: the long committee session. They would try again to persuade people eager for reelection, who review and approve new criminal laws three hours a week, every week, to undo part of one law even while a major campaign contributor, the prison guards’ union, summoned its lobbyist brigades to denounce any reform. For a moment before the group moved indoors, the ordinarily gray- white state buildings yellowed to reflect the warming sunrise—a sensation welcomed by a few aching elderly passengers, always alert for signs for hope. Perhaps on this trip they might knock one block out of the Golden Gulag’s miles and miles of prison walls.

4 P R O LO G U E




T his book is about the phenomenal growth of California’s state prison system since 1982 and grassroots opposition to the expanding use of prisons as catchall solutions to social problems. It asks how, why, where, and to what effect one of the planet’s richest and most diverse political economies

has organized and executed a prison-building and -filling plan that government analysts have called “the biggest . . . in the his- tory of the world” (Rudman and Berthelsen 1991: i). By provid- ing answers to these questions, the book also charts changes in state structure, local and regional economies, and social identi- ties. Golden Gulag is a tale of fractured collectivities—economies, governments, cities, communities, and households—and their fitful attempts to reconstruct themselves.

The book began as two modest research projects undertaken in Los Angeles in 1992 and 1994 on behalf of a group of mostly African American mothers, many of whom later rode the bus de- picted in the Prologue. All wished to understand both the letter






6 I N T R O D U C T I O N

and intent of two California laws—the Street Terrorism En- forcement and Prevention (STEP) Act (1988) and Proposition 184, the “three strikes and you’re out” law (1994). They asked me, a nonlawyer activist with research skills, access to university libraries, and a big vocabulary, to help them. The oral reports and written summaries I presented at Saturday workshops failed to produce what we hoped for: clues as to how individual defen- dants might achieve better outcomes in their cases. Rather, what we learned twice over was this: the laws had written into the penal code breathtakingly cruel twists in the meaning and prac- tice of justice.

Why should such discoveries surprise people for whom racism and economic struggle are persistent, life-shortening as- pects of everyday experience? Perhaps because, for an increasing number of people, by the early 1990s, everyday experience had come to include familiarity with the routines of police, arrests, lawyers, plea bargains, and trials. The repertoire of the criminal courts seemed to be consistent if consistently unfair, with every- one playing rather predictable roles and the devil (or acquittal) in the details. But instead of showing how to become more detail- savvy about a couple of laws, our group study shifted our per- spective by forcing us to ask general—and therefore, to our gen- eral frustration, more abstract—questions: Why prisons? Why now? Why for so many people—especially people of color? And why were they located so far from prisoners’ homes?

The complex inquiry we inadvertently set for ourselves even- tually defined the scope of this book, whose tale unfolds four times: statewide; at the capitol; in rural Corcoran; and in South Central Los Angeles. Working through California’s prison devel- opment from these various “cuts” will uncover the dynamics of



I N T R O D U C T I O N 7

the social and spatial intersections where expansion emerged. There’s a political reason for doing things this way. It is not only a good theory in theory but also a good theory in practice for people engaged in the spectrum of social justice struggles to figure out unexpected sites where their agendas align with those of others. We can do this by seeing how general changes connect with con- crete experiences—as the mothers did in our study groups.

The California state prisoner population grew nearly 500 percent between 1982 and 2000, even though the crime rate peaked in 1980 and declined, unevenly but decisively, thereafter (see figs. 1 and 2). African Americans and Latinos comprise two-thirds of the state’s 160,000 prisoners; almost 7 percent are women of all races; 25 percent are noncitizens. Most prisoners come from the state’s urban cores—particularly Los Angeles and the surround- ing southern counties. More than half the prisoners had steady employment before arrest, while upwards of 80 percent were, at some time in their case, represented by state-appointed lawyers for the indigent. In short, as a class, convicts are deindustrialized cities’ working or workless poor.

Since 1984, California has completed twenty-three major new prisons (see map), at a cost of $280–$350 million dollars apiece. The state had previously built only twelve prisons between 1852 and 1964. The gargantuan new poured-concrete structures loom at the edge of small, economically struggling, ethnically diverse towns in rural areas. California has also added, in similar loca- tions, thirteen small (500-bed) community corrections facilities, five prison camps, and five mother-prisoner centers to its pre-1984 inventory. By 2005, a hotly contested twenty-fourth new prison, designed to cage 5,160 men will, if opened, bring the total num-



8 I N T R O D U C T I O N

FIGURE 1. California crime index by category, 1952–1995. Source: Cali- fornia Department of Justice, Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

ber of state lockups for adult men and women to ninety.1 With the exception of a few privately managed 500-bed facilities, these pris- ons are wholly public: owned by the state of California, financed by Public Works Board debt, and operated by the California De- partment of Corrections. The state’s general fund provides 100 percent of the entire prison system’s annual costs. Expenses spiked from 2 percent of the general fund in 1982 to nearly 8 percent






Crime index, revised formula Crime index, original formula Property crimes, revised formula Property crimes, original formula Violent crimes


52 54 56 58 60 62 64 66 68 70 72 74 76 Year

78 80 82 84 86 88 90 92 94 96 98 00



R at


FIGURE 2. Revised California crime index, 1952–2000. Source: Califor- nia Department of Justice, Criminal Justice Information Services Divi- sion. Note: Throughout its development, this book used the nationally accepted method for measuring crime, as illustrated by figure 1, which shows the state attorney general’s 1995 California crime index. In 2003, “to give a more representative depiction of crime in California,” a dif- ferent California attorney general added “larceny-theft over $400” to the California crime index, retroactive to 1983. Whatever the latter’s motivations, the effect as shown above has been to muddy the waters concerning when the crime rate began to decline in California and, as a consequence, what role increasing the numbers of prisons and people locked up in them has played. Subsequent to this revision, the “Cali- fornia Crime Index has been temporarily suspended as efforts continue to redefine this measurement.” Data and quotations from Crimes, 1952–2003, table 1, Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Office of the At- torney General, http://caag.state.ca.us/cjsc/publications/candd/cd03/ tabs/ (January 23, 2005).



1 0 I N T R O D U C T I O N

0 50 100 mi

Prisons Community corrections facilities Camps Mother-prisoner facilities Cities State capital

Map does not include county or city jails, ICE detention centers, state or county juvenile facilities, or federal prisons.

Crescent City


Vacaville Folsom Sacramento Ione

San Quentin Tracy

Jamestown San Francisco



Soledad Coalinga Farmersville

Corcoran Avenal Delano

Wasco San Luis Obispo Bakersfield

Tehachapi Lancaster


Los Angeles Norco Blythe Corona

San Diego El Centro


California state adult prisons. Adapted from a map by Craig Gilmore.

today. The Department of Corrections has become the largest state agency, employing a heterogeneous workforce of 54,000.

These alarming facts raise many urgent issues involving money, income, jobs, race and ethnicity, gender, lawmaking, state agencies and the policies that propel them to act, rural communi- ties, urban neighborhoods, uneven development, migration and globalization, hope, and despair. Such breadth belies the common



I N T R O D U C T I O N 1 1

view that prisons sit on the edge—at the margins of social spaces, economic regions, political territories, and fights for rights. This apparent marginality is a trick of perspective, because, as every ge- ographer knows, edges are also interfaces. For example, even while borders highlight the distinction between places, they also connect places into relationships with each other and with non- contiguous places. So too with prisons: the government-organized and -funded dispersal of marginalized people from urban to rural locations suggests both that problems stretch across space in a con- nected way and that arenas for activism are less segregated than they seem. Viewed in this way, we can see how “prison” is actually in the middle of the muddle that confronts all modestly educated working people and their extended communities—the global supermajority—at the dawn of the twenty-first century.


The practice of putting people in cages for part or all of their lives is a central feature in the development of secular states, partici- patory democracy, individual rights, and contemporary notions of freedom. These institutions of modernity, shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrial production, faced a challenge— most acutely where capitalism flourished unfettered—to pro- duce stability from “the accumulation and useful administration” of people on the move in a “society of strangers” (Foucault 1977: 303). Prisons both depersonalized social control, so that it could be bureaucratically managed across time and space, and satisfied the demands of reformers who largely prevailed against bodily punishment, which nevertheless endures in the death penalty and many torturous conditions of confinement. Oddly enough,



1 2 I N T R O D U C T I O N

then, the rise of prisons is coupled with two major upheavals— the rise of the word freedom to stand in for what’s desirable and the rise of civic activists to stand up for who’s dispossessed.

The relationship of prison to dispossession has been well stud- ied. Wedged between ethics and the law, the justification for putting people behind bars rests on the premise that as a conse- quence of certain actions, some people should lose all freedom (which we can define in this instance as control over one’s bodily habits, pastimes, relationships, and mobility). It takes muscular political capacity to realize widescale dispossession of people who have formal rights, and historically those who fill prisons have collectively lacked political clout commensurate with the theo- retical power that rights suggest (see, e.g., Dayan 1999). In con- trast, during most of the modern history of prisons, those officially devoid of rights—indigenous and enslaved women and men, for example, or new immigrants, or married white women—rarely saw the inside of a cage, because their unfreedom was guaranteed by other means (Christianson 1998; E. B. Freedman 1996).

But what about crime? Doesn’t prison exist because there are criminals? Yes and no. While common sense suggests a natural connection between “crime” and “prison,” what counts as crime in fact changes, and what happens to people convicted of crimes does not, in all times and places, result in prison sentences. De- fined in the simple terms of the secular state, crime means a vio- lation of the law. Laws change, depending on what, in a social order, counts as stability, and who, in a social order, needs to be controlled. Let’s look at a range of examples. After the Civil War, an onslaught of legal maneuvers designed to guarantee the cheap availability of southern Black people’s labor outlawed both “moving around” and “standing still” (Franklin 1998), and con-



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victs worked without choice or compensation to build the re- gion’s infrastructure and industrial system (A. Lichtenstein 1996; B. M. Wilson 2000a). From the 1890s onward, a rush of Jim Crow laws both fed on earlier labor-focused statutes and sparked the nationwide apartheid craze. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1919) prohibited the manufacture, import, export, or sale of intoxicating liquors, at a time when most drugs that are now illegal were not (Lusane 1991). In Texas, driving while drinking alcohol is legal, whereas a marijuana seed can put a per- son in prison for life. Prostitution is legal in some places. In oth- ers, the remedy for theft is restitution, not a cage. Murder is the result of opportunity, motive, and means, and the fact of a killing begins rather than ends an inquiry into the shifting legal nature of such a loss. Numerous histories and criminological treatises show shifts over time in what crime is and why it matters (see, e.g., Linebaugh 1992; Christianson 1998). Contemporary com- parative studies demonstrate how societies that are relatively similar—industrialized, diverse, largely immigrant—differ widely in their assessments and experience of disorderly behav- ior and the remedies for what’s generally accepted as wrong (Archer and Gartner 1984). As we can see that crime is not fixed, it follows that crime’s relationship to prisons is the outcome of so- cial theory and practice, rather than the only possible source of stability through control.

How are prisons supposed to produce stability through con- trolling what counts as crime? Four theories condense two and a quarter centuries of experience into conflicting and generally overlapping explanations for why societies decide they should lock people out by locking them in. Each theory, which has its in- tellectuals, practitioners, and critics, turns on one of four key con-



1 4 I N T R O D U C T I O N

cepts: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation. Let’s take them in turn. The shock of retribution—loss of lib- erty—supposedly keeps convicted persons from doing again, upon release, what sent them to prison. Retribution’s specter, de- terrence, allegedly dissuades people who can project themselves into a convicted person’s jumpsuit from doing what might result in lost liberty. Rehabilitation proposes that the unfreedom of prisons provides an occasion for the acquisition of sobriety and skills, so that, on release, formerly incarcerated people can live lives away from the criminal dragnet. And, finally, incapacita- tion, the least ambitious of all these theories, simply calculates that those locked up cannot make trouble outside of prison. These theories relate to each other as reforms—not as steps away from brutality or inconsistency, but as attempts to make prisons produce social stability through applying some mix of care, in- difference, compulsory training, and cruelty to people in cages.

If the fourth concept, incapacitation, is not ambitious in a be- havioral or psychological sense, it is, ironically, the theory that undergirds the most ambitious prison-building project in the his- tory of the world. Incapacitation doesn’t pretend to change any- thing about people except where they are. It is in a simple- minded way, then, a geographical solution that purports to solve social problems by extensively and repeatedly removing people from disordered, deindustrialized milieus and depositing them somewhere else.

But does the absence of freedom for many ensure stability in the form of lower-crime communities, and idled courts and po- lice officers, for others? We can hazard a quick guess by asking a different question: would the prevailing theories shift and mingle over time, persistently reforming reformed reforms, if



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the outcome were stability? Probably not. And now there’s more to be said on the subject, since we can count and compare out- comes. State by state, those jurisdictions that have not built a lot of prisons and thrown more people into them have enjoyed greater decreases in crime than states where incapacitation be- came a central governmental activity. For the latter, there are similar patterns of contrariness: within California, counties that aggressively use mandatory sentencing, such as the notoriously harsh “three strikes” law, have experienced feebler decreases in crime than counties that use the law sparingly.

Here we must briefly digress and reflect further on prison de- mographics, in particular, their exclusive domination of working or workless poor, most of whom are not white. Since it has never before been so easy for people of color to get into prison (jail is an- other matter [Irwin 1985]), we have to ask how racism works to lock in both them and more poor white people as well. To what degree has the regular observer, of any race, learned both will- fully and unconsciously to conclude that the actual people who go to prison are the same as those the abolitionist Ruth Morris called the “terrible few.” The “terrible few” are a statistically in- significant and socially unpredictable handful of the planet’s hu- mans whose psychopathic actions are the stuff of folktales, tabloids (including the evening news and reality television), and emergency legislation. When it comes to crime and prisons, the few whose difference might horribly erupt stand in for the many whose difference is emblazoned on surfaces of skin, documents, and maps—color, credo, citizenship, communities, convictions. The paroxysmal thinking required to make such a substitution is the outcome of many prods and barbs, in which aggression, vi- olence, order, and duty conflate into an alleged force of Ameri-



1 6 I N T R O D U C T I O N

can “human nature” (Lutz 2001). This thinking reveals the imaginary relationships people have with neighbors recast as strangers in a thoroughly racialized and income-stratified polit- ical economy that regularly redefines possibilities while never setting absolute positive or negative limits.

With the vexing question of difference in mind, let’s return to the problem of spatial unevenness. If places that spare the cage are calmer than places that use imprisonment more aggressively, why is this so? Why wouldn’t higher rates of incapacitation pro- duce more stability? As it turns out, if we ratchet our perspective down to an extremely intimate view and compare, we see that identical locations—in terms of the social, cultural, and eco- nomic characteristics of inhabitants—diverge over time into dif- ferent qualities of place when one of them experiences high rates of imprisonment of residents. And, more, the “tipping point,” when things start to get really bad, is not very deep. Only two or three need be removed from n to produce greater instability in a community of people who, when employed, make, move, or care for things (Clear et al. 2001; Rose and Clear 2002). Why? For one thing, households stretch from neighborhood to visiting room to courtroom, with a consequent thinning of financial and emo- tional resources (Comfort 2002). Looking around the block at all the homes, research shows that increased use of policing and state intervention in everyday problems hasten the demise of the in- formal customary relationships that social calm depends on (Clear et al. 2001). People stop looking out for each other and stop talking about anything that matters in terms of neighborly well- being. Cages induce or worsen mental illness in prisoners (Haney 2001; Kupers 1999), most of whom eventually come out to service-starved streets. Laws (such as lifetime bans from financial



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aid) and fiscal constraints displacing dollars from social invest- ment to social expense (O’Connor [1973] 2000) lock former pris- oners out of education, employment, housing, and many other stabilizing institutions of everyday life. In such inhospitable places, everybody isolates. And when something disruptive, con- fusing, or undesirable happens, people dial 911. As a result, crime goes up, along with unhappiness, and those who are able to do so move away in search of a better environment, concentrating un- happiness in their wake. In other words, prisons wear out places by wearing out people, irrespective of whether they have done time (Mauer and Chesney-Lind 2002).

This book asks how prison came to be such a widescale solu- tion in late twentieth-century California, in part by looking at the problem through two extraordinary lenses. It asks what the re- lationship is between urban and rural political and economic re- structuring, and how urban social expense fits into the rural landscape. It also asks what happens in the urban neighborhoods prisoners come from when people start talking to each other again.



In its briefest form, the dominant explanation for prison growth goes like this: crime went up; we cracked down; crime came down.

Is this true? The media, government officials, and policy advisers end-

lessly refer to “the public’s concern” over crime and connect prison growth to public desire for social order. In this explana- tion, what is pivotal is not the state’s definition of crime per se but



1 8 I N T R O D U C T I O N

rather society’s condemnation of rampant deviant behavior— thus a moral, not (necessarily) legal, panic. The catapulting of crime to public anxiety number one, even when unemployment and inflation might have garnered greater worry in the reces- sions of the early 1980s and the early 1990s, suggests that concerns about social deviance overshadowed other, possibly more imme- diate, issues.

However, by the time the great prison roundups began, crime had started to go down. Mainstream media widely reported the results of statistics annually gathered and published by the FBI, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and state attorneys general. In other words, if the public had indeed demanded crime reduc- tion, the public was already getting what it wanted. California officials could have taken credit for decreasing crime rates with- out producing more than 140,000 new prison beds (more than a million nationally).

Another explanation for the burgeoning prison population is the drug epidemic and the presumed threat to public safety posed by the unrestrained use and trade of illegal substances. In- formation about the controlling (or most serious) offense of pris- oners seems to support the drug explanation: drug commitments to federal and state prison systems surged 975 percent between 1982 and 1999. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the widening use of drugs in the late 1970s and early 1980s provoked prison expansion. According to this scenario—as news stories, sensational television programs, popular music and movies, and politicians’ anecdotes made abundantly clear—communities, es- pecially poor communities of color, would be more deeply deci- mated by addiction, drug dealing, and gang violence were it not for the restraining force of prisons. The explanation rests on two



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assumptions: first, that drug use exploded in the 1980s; and sec- ond, that the sometimes violent organization of city neighbor- hoods into gang enclaves was accomplished in order to secure drug markets.

In fact, according to the BJS, illegal drug use among all kinds of people throughout the United States declined drastically start- ing in the mid 1970s (Tonry 1995). Second, although large-scale traffic in legal or illegal goods requires highly organized distrib- ution systems—whether corporations or gangs (Winslow 1999)—not all gangs are in drug trafficking. For example, ac- cording to Mike Davis (1990), in late 1980s Los Angeles, despite the availability of stiffer sentences for gang members, prosecutors charged only one in four dealers with gang membership, and that pattern continued through the 1990s, despite media reports to the contrary.

A third explanation blames structural changes in employment opportunities; these changes have left large numbers of people challenged to find new income sources, and many have turned to what one pundit called illegal entitlements. In this view, those who commit property crimes—along with those who trade in il- legal substances—reasonably account for a substantial portion of the vast increase in prison populations. Controlling offense data for new prisoners support the income-supplementing explana- tion: the percentage of people in prison for property offenses has more than doubled since 1982. But at the same time, incidents of property crime peaked in 1980; indeed, the drop in property crime pushed down the overall crime rate.

Throughout the economic boom of the 1990s, both print and electronic media again headlined annual federal reports about long-term drops in crime (falling since 1980), and elected and ap-



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pointed officials took credit for the trends. In this context, the ex- planation for bulging prisons centers on the remarkable array of stiffer mandatory sentences now doled out for a wide range of behavior that used to be differently punished, if at all. This ex- planation, tied to but different from the moral panic explanation, proposes that while social deviance might not have exploded after all, aggressive intolerance pays handsome political divi- dends. The explanation that new kinds of sentences—which is to say the concerted action of lawmakers—rather than crises in the streets produced the growth in prison is after the fact and begs the question: Why prisons now?

Indeed, the preceding series of explanations and their under- lying weaknesses suggest that the simple relationship between “crime” and “crackdown” introducing this section should be tweaked in the interest of historical accuracy. The string of de- clarative statements more properly reads: “crime went up; crime came down; we cracked down.” If the order is different, then so are the causes. Here, of course, is where the prevailing alternative explanations come in. These views, like the official stories, are not mutually exclusive.

A key set of arguments charges racial cleansing: prisons grow in order to get rid of people of color, especially young Black men, accomplishing the goal through new lawmaking, patterns of policing, and selective prosecution (see, for examples, Miller 1996; Mauer 1999; Goldberg 2002). These analysts prove their claims using two decades of numbers showing the “racial dis- parities” in flesh-and-blood facts of prison expansion, substantial for white people and off the charts for nearly everybody else. There’s no doubt what the accumulated experience is. But why now? Among many who charge racism, folk wisdom, a product



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of mixing the Thirteenth Amendment with thin evidence, is that prison constitutes the new slavery and that the millions in cages are there to provide cheap labor for corporations looking to lower stateside production costs.

The problem with the “new slavery” argument is that very few prisoners work for anybody while they’re locked up. Recall, the generally accepted goal for prisons has been incapacitation: a do-nothing theory if ever there was one. There has certainly been enough time for public and private entities to have worked out the logistics of exploiting unfree labor, and virtually every state, including California, has a law requiring prisoners to work. But the fact that most prisoners are idle, and that those who work do so for a public agency, undermines the view that today’s prison expansion is the story of nineteenth-century Alabama writ large (A. Lichtenstein 1996; B. M. Wilson 2000a). The principal reason private interests fail to exploit prisoner labor seems to be this: big firms can afford to set up satellite work areas (what a prison- based production facility would be), while small firms cannot. Small firms then fight against big firms over unfair access to cheap labor and fight as well against publicly owned and oper- ated prison industries (such as the federal system called UNI- COR) that, due to low wages (not the same as low labor costs), unfairly compete in markets selling things modestly educated people can make and do.