A semantic point of departure

Don’t refer to incarcerated individuals as prisoners. They are not prisoners, they are folks who’ve been prisonized by the State. Referring to them as such trivializes their identities by defining them solely by the institution that confines them. It becomes much easier to rely on stereotypical depictions of incarcerated folks when they are labeled as prisoners. ‘Prisoner’ carries an inherently negative connotation pinned up by notions of disgust & incorrigibility. We can alter this damaging palimpsest by moving away from these monolithic characterizations. Instead of seeing Joe as a prisoner unworthy of respect, we should see him in a holistic light as someone who, perhaps, suffered from a lack of economic autonomy in life that guided his behavior that led to his incarceration.

In many ways, this argument is similar to referring to immigrants as undocumented instead of illegal aliens. No human being is illegal just as no human belongs in a cage. We can begin to shrink the social distance of incarceration by changing the language we use in common discourse. It is a simple step that reaps immediate short and long-term benefits. In the short term, we can begin the process of re-humanizing hundreds of thousands of fellow Californians who are currently incarcerated. In the long term, we can ease their transition back to society by acknowledging their experiences and offering second chances.

For those unmotivated by these humanitarian rationales (which is doubtful for the three readers of this blog), we can always fall back on the profound cost of incarceration as a mobilizing factor. By distancing ourselves from the lifetime sentence of being branded a prisoner we can extend more economic & social opportunities to help these folks from ever returning to prison. ‘Prisoners’ are barred from reintegrating back into mainstream society by over 40,000 legal discriminatory barriers. Individuals who have complex pasts that involved structural injustices and self-inflicted harms should enter an ecosystem eager to help them move forward, not eager to send them back at all turns.

Often, folks don’t believe in second chances until they need one themselves. Implicit in this line of reasoning is the idea that in this country it would be incredibly wrong for someone to receive something they don’t deserve. Empathy should be a foundational quality society is built on. In order for it to become so, we must be the catalysts for the change we want to see. This isn’t a call to social justice warriors, it’s a call for basic human decency.




How gender constructs the prison system

Women in prison are often overlooked in conversations about mass incarceration. Up to this point, they’ve been largely ignored on this very blog. But let’s dive into it …

CA has the largest number of women in cages of any state in the country that incarcerates the most people on earth. The biggest women’s prison in the world is in CA. More than 1/3rd of all women incarcerated in CA are from Los Angeles county. 75% of women in CA’s prison system are classified at Levels I and II (CA inmates are placed at facilities based on safety levels I-IV). In comparison, only 55% of men in CA are classified at Levels I and II. Approximately 70-80% of incarcerated women are mothers. African-American women are the fastest growing sector of the US prison population. Women in prison are typically women with complex histories of abuse, trauma, and addiction.

Women 1

Since most women in prison have had lives shaped by a multiplicity of abuse (80% report abuse of any type at anytime in their lives), it’s safe to assume the prime motivation for most of their crimes is economic, psychological, and emotional survival. Like men, most incarcerated women are under educated. Women are sent to prison less frequently than men, for far less serious offenses, and commit less disciplinary infractions once inside.

Historically, women have been incarcerated in psychiatric institutions at greater proportions than in prisons. Masculine criminality is seen as more normal than feminine criminality. Deviant men are constructed as criminals, while deviant women are constructed as insane. Psychiatric drugs like Haldol are distributed more extensively to imprisoned women than men. For most of the twentieth century, the female incarceration rate nationwide was 8 per 100,000. Today it is 51 per 100,000. The incarceration rate for African-American women currently exceeds that for white men as recently as 1980.

Prison culture for women often involves themes of violent sexualization and exploitation. (Male Correctional staff at women’s prisons in CA hovers around 70%). A 1996 Human Rights Watch report summarized, “Our findings indicate that being a woman prisoner in US state prisons can be a terrifying experience. If you are sexually abused, you cannot escape from your abuser. Grievance or investigatory procedures, where they exist, are often ineffectual, and correctional employees continue to engage in abuse because they believe they will rarely be held accountable, administratively or criminally. Few people outside the prison walls know what is going on or care if they do know. Fewer still will do anything to address the problem.” Clearly, men don’t share the same struggles with patriarchy or sexual and personal oppression found in the lives of women. 

Incarcerated women organize their time and create a social world that is quite different from contemporary men’s prisons. The culture of women prisons develops in ways different from the degradation, violence, and predatory structure of male prison life. In some ways, the culture of the women’s prison seeks to accommodate these struggles rather than to exploit them. Race and ethnic identity provide a subtext to prison life for women, they are clearly secondary to the dominant issue of personal relationships. (Unlike male prisons in CA that are racially segregated, female prisons are not).

Good books about issues pertaining to women in prisons:

In the Mix: Struggle and Survival in a Women’s Prison — Barbara Owen

In Search of Safety: Confronting Inequality in Women’s Imprisonment — Barbara Owen, James Wells, Joycelyn Pollock

Are Prisons Obsolete? — Angela Davis


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