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.

Construction 2


The shadowy domain of Gang injunctions

What are gang injunctions?

Gang injunctions are civil court orders that attempt to respond to heightened crime rates in a neighborhood by making otherwise legal activities illegal for certain targeted people. Law enforcement agencies use them as tools to label people gang members and restrict their activities in a defined area. For example, hanging out on a street corner becomes guilt by association if suspected gang members are present. Or wearing clothing that police believe highlights gang affiliation becomes a criminalized activity. Gang injunctions are obtained by a City Attorney or District Attorney who petition a judge to declare a particular gang a “public nuisance” and impose harsh restrictions on targeted individuals’ daily lives.

Are they problematic? 

Yes, very. Ostensibly gang injunction zones preserve public safety, but often amount to nothing more than racial profiling on a neighborhood-wide scale. Giving police nearly-unlimited discretion to label people gang members without having to present evidence or even charge someone with a crime is not a recipe for ideal police-community relations. Despite the documented existence of white gangs, no CA gang injunction has ever targeted a white gang.

People targeted by gang injunctions are not guaranteed a legal right to be notified or given the opportunity to defend themselves in court prior to being bound by restrictions of the injunction, nor are they provided with an attorney. Additionally, many gang injunctions do not provide a clear way out for people who are either mistakenly identified as gang members or for those who have turned their lives around. This means that the injunction could follow them the rest of their life.

Do they deter crime? 

Yes, but also not really. Los Angeles is currently enforcing 46 separate gang injunctions against some 10,000 Angelenos. Crime has waned across the board since injunctions started being used in the late 80’s, but it’s not clear how much of this drop should be attributed solely to the injunctions. Confirmation bias certainly plays a significant role. If police are looking for gang activity they will generate ways (i.e. gang injunctions) to find it. The results are mixed at best.

What are some alternative solutions to confronting gang activity?

Investing in other social services would perhaps do a better job of attacking the prevalence of gangs in CA communities. Better funded after school programs, more city parks or YMCA centers, and more adequately calibrated police targeting could all reap enormous benefits. If we assume people join gangs out of recreation, or for a sense of belonging/dignity, we should offer programs that provide such qualities. Pretty much anything other than sacrificing the civil liberties of thousands of Californians would be a better solution.


Previously in the shadowy domain series: Sentence enhancements

Stop kneeling at the altar of prisons

Prisons have become quasi-religious institutions in so far as society imagines they are necessary at the scale and scope to which they’ve developed over the past forty years. This premise harks on questions of state and public sector legitimacy. It’s not possible to unglue the prison industrial complex from racial capitalism (for one because all capitalism is racial capitalism), but also because surpluses of land and labor produced a subclass of Californian’s primed for entry into prisons. Do we accept prisons as a necessary feature of life because we simply cannot comprehend a world in which they don’t exist? If so, what would these alternatives look like in an abolitionist realm?

No one is free in a prison industrial state. One’s own innocence presupposes someone else’s guilt, and thus we are all criminalized to a certain extent. Bob’s behavior that abides by the law implicates Joe’s deviant behavior as going against the accepted norms that requires corrective punishment. We can see crime as a normal part of society as Durkheim suggested in the nineteenth century, but we cannot see crime through a color-blind lens. The social construction of race evolved in concert with notions of criminality. By extension, innocence and ideas of just desserts are also socially constructed in a racialized nature.

Let’s apply André Gorz’s idea of non-reformist reform to conversations about the prison industrial complex.  Non-reformist reform is any reform that doesn’t extend the life or scope of the prison industrial complex. This framework allows us to see the prison archipelago for what it ought to be, not what it is now. It shouldn’t put human beings in cages unfit for pets. In shouldn’t target racially oppressed communities that have been historically dismantled and devastated by the State. It shouldn’t treat civil rights as dependent on one’s zip code. It shouldn’t rely on prisons as the institutions of last resort when all others fail. What should it do? It should appreciate the underlying causes of crime by addressing the lack of autonomy and upward mobility in certain communities. It should create space for nuanced responses to public safety that don’t only involve incarceration. It should rely on restorative justice and other practices that aren’t zero sum games. Human imagination is not easily contained; we could literally build anything in this non-reformist reform arena.

There is a difference between practice and theory. But it seems unlikely that any future abolitionist society would spend more than CDCR’s annual budget of $11.4 billion on public safety. Prisons are widely legitimized precisely because we widely legitimize them. By this logic we could just as easily turn our back on such a sinister force and widely reject them. The decision is our own. Should one continue to ignore a system that destroys communities that have always been destroyed in this country because they are gifted the privilege of social distance? There will never be prison reform or abolition in a world where the privileged aren’t more outraged than the oppressed.

A realistic blueprint for curbing hyper incarceration trends

A Philadelphia DA just won an election based on an ultra-progressive platform to end mass incarceration. Philly is notorious for employing some of the toughest criminal justice policies (1 in 10 juveniles nationwide serving life sentences without the possibility of parole were sentenced in Philly.) Campaign promises from the new DA include; abandoning cash bail for non-violent offenders, no longer pursuing capital punishment, and not bringing cases based on illegal searches. The new DA won with 75% of the vote.

This is a good start. 87% of inmates are housed at the state and local level, and prosecutors are the unilateral gatekeepers in these systems. Any future reduction of the prison populations would inevitably have to involve reforming prosecutorial behavior. Prosecutors decide who goes to prison on what charges and for how long. For all the traction mass incarceration reform has generated, prosecutors have avoided any of the spotlight as the culprits of exploding prison admission rates. Prosecutors are granted nearly unlimited discretion to act and their decisions usually aren’t reviewable. This dynamic partially explains why incarceration rates have been growing over the past twenty-five years as crime rates have been dropping.


It’s painstakingly clear to critical observers that confronting the role of prosecutors must be lexically prior to any other reform-minded goals. But perhaps the more logical response is abolition.