After the Hunger Strike: Criminal Justice Activist Discusses the Potential Impact of Prisoners' Action
Continued from previous page
IO: The best answer to this question is the wonderful and very important book Golden Gulag by Ruth Wilson Gilmore. The book explores these questions in great detail and I really can’t recommend it enough.
But roughly, we can understand that in the late '60s and early '70s, the powers-that-be in the US responded to social uprisings against racism, social and economic inequality, and other forms of oppression in the US —linked to anti-imperialist struggles happening all over the planet at the time—by making war primarily on communities of color in a variety ways, including the expansion and further militarization of policing and the expansion of imprisonment. This is intertwined with a crisis in the capitalist system occurring at the same time. So we saw an assault on organized labor and social services and programs that was basically the rise of neoliberal economic models—creating a deepening in the divide between the haves and have-nots (already pretty deep for those marginalized to begin with).
Into the 1980s we saw the war on drugs—which we should understand as a war on black and brown communities—go into full gear with the passing of thousands of laws, tougher and longer sentences, and the activation of all sorts of media stories and images that aggressively criminalize and dehumanize poor people and people of color, especially black people.
Even though the so-called crime rate started dropping steadily in the early '80s, the economy, this fear-mongering, increased policing, mixed with the proliferation of anti-social ideas that social services are a waste, created the perfect storm for a gigantic increase in imprisonment. And the cycle perpetuated itself from there with harsher probation and parole conditions that made it easier to deny essential services and to land more people back in cages for longer amounts of time. Tying it back to the '60s and '70s, this cycle makes it more difficult for social movements to change the oppressive social and economic relationships the system is predicated on.
So, California, with one of the largest economies in the world, is situated in this history. The gutting of social services, the attack on labor, the loss of jobs, tax revolts , the abandonment of certain industries, financial speculation, the disuse of farmland, housing bubbles, energy speculation, “dot-com bubbles,” the criminalization of people of color, anti-immigrant hysteria, the passage of the three strikes law, etc., leads to one the largest prison expansions in world history. Between 1982 and 2000, California's prison population grew 500 percent.
Between 1984 and 2005, at least 20 prisons were built. In this period, only one university was built. And right now, these prisons are close to 200 percent of their holding capacity.
Obviously this history is cursory, simplistic, and leaves out a lot, but in engaging with any crisis there are questions we need ask, patterns we need to identify, and actions we need to take. In thinking about budget crisis, we need to ask ourselves: why does everything (education, health care and services, wages, jobs, etc.) except corrections get cut? What does this mean for the health of our communities? How does this relate to further economic crisis? How are we prepared to organize around this crisis? What are our opportunities?
A3N: Have there been any examples of other states reducing their prison populations as a response to budget issues?
IO: Yes, even right now, states are reducing prison spending, closing facilities and releasing people in response to the economic havoc caused by prisons. To be clear, much of this reduction is not based on progressive or humanitarian politics, or even an opposition to imprisonment. But, in the past year, New York, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, and Connecticut have all implemented a variety of schemes to shrink imprisonment. Some of them have to do with sentencing reforms and parole and probation reforms, some schemes involve outright prison closure. I think the key here is for organizations and individuals that want to see longer-term and deeper changes to organize around making these shrinkages permanent, and then to battle to have funds no longer wasted on prison spending be put towards repairing and building up the communities imprisonment has devastated—so that people coming home can stay home.