How did CA complete the largest prison building operation in human history?

Prisons are taken for granted nowadays. They function as nearly invisible institutions in society although they are allocated massive amounts of resources and serve as human landfills for hundreds of thousands of Californians. But it wasn’t always this way; as recently as ~40 years ago CA had a rather modest prison population. The boom in per capita incarceration rates is well documented, but the construction of prisons to confine all these individuals is not. The short answer is this rapid expansion of the carceral state was developed with little legislative or judicial oversight. The long answer requires a nuanced understanding of the political & economic factors that facilitated funding, specifically the proliferation of lease revenue & general obligation bonds, and the perceived absolute need for more prisons by bureaucratic actors despite falling crime rates.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, co-founder of Critical Resistance — a profoundly important prison reform organization, and one of my favorite socio-legal scholars, shined a much needed light on CA’s ambitious prison construction plan. As she writes, “Consistently, from 1982 to 1996, the CDC (now CDCR) had six to ten new prisons in some stage of planning, design, or construction, at an average cost per establishment of a quarter billion dollars.” Why did CA feel there was a need to undergo such an historically unprecedented prison building program? Were CDCR officials expecting a continuous uptick in incarcerate commitments and reacting appropriately to the demand of a 450% increase in incarceration rates? There are of course no simple answers, but momentum leads in the direction of the 1977 Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act. This law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown during his first governorship, shifted the rationale of punishment and incarceration from rehabilitation to a force of unrelenting incapacitation. The language of the law plainly states, “The purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment.” The Determinate sentencing act locked inmates into their sentences for its entirety and abolished the role of parole boards in early releases. This change in penal sentencing law intersected with the War on Drugs, the infamous Three-Strikes law, Mandatory minimums, and other sentencing enhancements like gang membership to effectively spur mass incarceration as we know it today.


CA corrections officials had a new mission statement; to confine inmates for their entirety of their sentences as a punishment for their crimes. By removing rehabilitation as a guiding rationale the perfect storm for a colossal prison construction operation was brewing on the horizon. The need for more detention facilities brought the challenge of funding these expensive entities. The path of least resistance manifested itself in the use of tax payer money to finance the endeavor. In 1982 the CA legislature successfully convinced voters to approve the Prison Construction Bond Act that authorized $495,000,000 in general obligation bonds to build new prisons. The argument was framed to mobilize voters fears by equating more prison cells to improved community safety. But politicians were weary of relying on voters to approve numerous general obligation bonds. As Gilmore writes, “The problem became how to expand a politically popular program (prisons) without running up against the politically contradictory limit to taxpayers’ willingness to use their own money to defend against their own fears.” The solution was a loophole in municipal bonding known as Lease Revenue Bonds. Lease Revenue Bonds allowed prison bureaucrats to borrow huge sums of money to fund new prisons while doing so off the books because their repayment didn’t require any additional taxing or fiscal capacities of the state. Lease revenue bonds and general obligation bonds operate in similar fashions, the only real differences being the depth of approval needed to borrow and amount of interest that is racked up (lease revenue bonds entail higher interest repayments because the state is not liable.)

Data from the State Public Works Board of CA shows that the amount of debt for the prison construction program grew from $763 million to $4.9 billion dollars from 1985 to 1993, representing a proportional increase from 3.8% to 16.6% of CA’s total debt. This new influx of capital paved the foundation for CA to undergo the largest prison building operation in human history. The next step became where to site all the new prisons, but more on that on a later post …

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