Prisons: Geographic solutions to socioeconomic problems

In thinking about the economy of incarceration in CA, the prison industrial complex grew in concert with surpluses in state capacity. Most CA prisons are sited on devalued rural land (most on formerly irrigated acres). Starting in the 80’s, big agribusiness power brokers saw an opportunity to unload sinking assets, and politicians from the area flocked to support the proposals. CA bought the land and assured the small, economically depressed towns that a new recession-proof industry was moving in to jump start local redevelopment (which turned out not to be true). CA used its enormous capacity to raise money, buy land, and build and staff prisons through loopholes in municipal bonding.

At the same time as CA was siting new prisons in the Central Valley (CA has built 23 prisons since 1982), surpluses in labor were laying the foundation for the necessary bodies to fill all the new prisons. Reorganization of labor markets due to globalization displaced modestly educated people in the prime of their lives who once might have gained their wages by making or moving things. Moral panic over crime (rising violent crime rates through the 90’s) created a social crisis that collided with an economic panic (profit crisis — the tendency for profit to rise and fall) that combined to produce a mega crisis that only prisons could fix. (Crisis means instability that can be fixed only through radical measures, which include developing new relationships with existing institutions or renovating them completely ). CA emerged from these crises by building itself in part by building prisons.

CA also makes new laws to ensure incarceration for an ever expanding list of offenses. The Committee on Public Safety reviews and recommends new new criminal statues, and has enacted nearly 2,000 criminal statues in the past two decades. Those squeezed out of restructured labor markets were rounded up en masse by these new laws. CA produces, and is produced by, the industrialized punishment system which is core to the prison industrial complex. The crisis of state capacity became its own solution.

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