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University of California Press
Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California / Edition 1

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California / Edition 1

by Ruth Wilson GilmoreRuth Wilson Gilmore
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Since 1980, the number of people in U.S. prisons has increased more than 450%. Despite a crime rate that has been falling steadily for decades, California has led the way in this explosion, with what a state analyst called “the biggest prison building project in the history of the world.” Golden Gulag provides the first detailed explanation for that buildup by looking at how political and economic forces, ranging from global to local, conjoined to produce the prison boom.

In an informed and impassioned account, Ruth Wilson Gilmore examines this issue through statewide, rural, and urban perspectives to explain how the expansion developed from surpluses of finance capital, labor, land, and state capacity. Detailing crises that hit California’s economy with particular ferocity, she argues that defeats of radical struggles, weakening of labor, and shifting patterns of capital investment have been key conditions for prison growth. The results—a vast and expensive prison system, a huge number of incarcerated young people of color, and the increase in punitive justice such as the “three strikes” law—pose profound and troubling questions for the future of California, the United States, and the world. Golden Gulag provides a rich context for this complex dilemma, and at the same time challenges many cherished assumptions about who benefits and who suffers from the state’s commitment to prison expansion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520242012
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/08/2007
Series: American Crossroads , #21
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 412
Sales rank: 49,176
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ruth Wilson Gilmore is Associate Professor of Geography and Director of the Program in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is a member of the founding collective of Critical Resistance, one of the most important national anti-prison organizations in the United States.

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Golden Gulag

Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

By Ruth Wilson Gilmore


Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93803-8




This book is about the phenomenal growth of California's state prison system since 1982 and grassroots opposition to the expanding use of prisons as catchall solutions to social problems. It asks how, why, where, and to what effect one of the planet's richest and most diverse political economies has organized and executed a prison-building and -filling plan that government analysts have called "the biggest ... in the history of the world" (Rudman and Berthelsen 1991: i). By providing answers to these questions, the book also charts changes in state structure, local and regional economies, and social identities. Golden Gulag is a tale of fractured collectivities—economies, governments, cities, communities, and households—and their fitful attempts to reconstruct themselves.

The book began as two modest research projects undertaken in Los Angeles in 1992 and 1994 on behalf of a group of mostly African American mothers, many of whom later rode the bus depicted in the Prologue. All wished to understand both the letter and intent of two California laws—the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act (1988) and Proposition 184, the "three strikes and you're out" law (1994). They asked me, a nonlawyer activist with research skills, access to university libraries, and a big vocabulary, to help them. The oral reports and written summaries I presented at Saturday workshops failed to produce what we hoped for: clues as to how individual defendants might achieve better outcomes in their cases. Rather, what we learned twice over was this: the laws had written into the penal code breathtakingly cruel twists in the meaning and practice of justice.

Why should such discoveries surprise people for whom racism and economic struggle are persistent, life-shortening aspects of everyday experience? Perhaps because, for an increasing number of people, by the early 1990s, everyday experience had come to include familiarity with the routines of police, arrests, lawyers, plea bargains, and trials. The repertoire of the criminal courts seemed to be consistent if consistently unfair, with everyone playing rather predictable roles and the devil (or acquittal) in the details. But instead of showing how to become more detail-savvy about a couple of laws, our group study shifted our perspective by forcing us to ask general—and therefore, to our general frustration, more abstract—questions: Why prisons? Why now? Why for so many people—especially people of color? And why were they located so far from prisoners' homes?

The complex inquiry we inadvertently set for ourselves eventually defined the scope of this book, whose tale unfolds four times: statewide; at the capitol; in rural Corcoran; and in South Central Los Angeles. Working through California's prison development from these various "cuts" will uncover the dynamics of the social and spatial intersections where expansion emerged. There's a political reason for doing things this way. It is not only a good theory in theory but also a good theory in practice for people engaged in the spectrum of social justice struggles to figure out unexpected sites where their agendas align with those of others. We can do this by seeing how general changes connect with concrete experiences—as the mothers did in our study groups.

The California state prisoner population grew nearly 500 percent between 1982 and 2000, even though the crime rate peaked in 1980 and declined, unevenly but decisively, thereafter (see figs. 1 and 2). African Americans and Latinos comprise two-thirds of the state's 160,000 prisoners; almost 7 percent are women of all races; 25 percent are noncitizens. Most prisoners come from the state's urban cores—particularly Los Angeles and the surrounding southern counties. More than half the prisoners had steady employment before arrest, while upwards of 80 percent were, at some time in their case, represented by state-appointed lawyers for the indigent. In short, as a class, convicts are deindustrialized cities' working or workless poor.

Since 1984, California has completed twenty-three major new prisons (see map), at a cost of $280–$350 million dollars apiece. The state had previously built only twelve prisons between 1852 and 1964. The gargantuan new poured-concrete structures loom at the edge of small, economically struggling, ethnically diverse towns in rural areas. California has also added, in similar locations, thirteen small (500-bed) community corrections facilities, five prison camps, and five mother-prisoner centers to its pre-1984 inventory. By 2005, a hotly contested twenty-fourth new prison, designed to cage 5,160 men will, if opened, bring the total number of state lockups for adult men and women to ninety. With the exception of a few privately managed 500-bed facilities, these prisons are wholly public: owned by the state of California, financed by Public Works Board debt, and operated by the California Department of Corrections. The state's general fund provides 100 percent of the entire prison system's annual costs. Expenses spiked from 2 percent of the general fund in 1982 to nearly 8 percent today. The Department of Corrections has become the largest state agency, employing a heterogeneous workforce of 54,000.

These alarming facts raise many urgent issues involving money, income, jobs, race and ethnicity, gender, lawmaking, state agencies and the policies that propel them to act, rural communities, urban neighborhoods, uneven development, migration and globalization, hope, and despair. Such breadth belies the common view that prisons sit on the edge—at the margins of social spaces, economic regions, political territories, and fights for rights. This apparent marginality is a trick of perspective, because, as every geographer knows, edges are also interfaces. For example, even while borders highlight the distinction between places, they also connect places into relationships with each other and with noncontiguous places. So too with prisons: the government-organized and -funded dispersal of marginalized people from urban to rural locations suggests both that problems stretch across space in a connected way and that arenas for activism are less segregated than they seem. Viewed in this way, we can see how "prison" is actually in the middle of the muddle that confronts all modestly educated working people and their extended communities—the global supermajority—at the dawn of the twenty-first century.


The practice of putting people in cages for part or all of their lives is a central feature in the development of secular states, participatory democracy, individual rights, and contemporary notions of freedom. These institutions of modernity, shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrial production, faced a challenge—most acutely where capitalism flourished unfettered—to produce stability from "the accumulation and useful administration" of people on the move in a "society of strangers" (Foucault 1977: 303). Prisons both depersonalized social control, so that it could be bureaucratically managed across time and space, and satisfied the demands of reformers who largely prevailed against bodily punishment, which nevertheless endures in the death penalty and many torturous conditions of confinement. Oddly enough, then, the rise of prisons is coupled with two major upheavals—the rise of the word freedom to stand in for what's desirable and the rise of civic activists to stand up for who's dispossessed.

The relationship of prison to dispossession has been well studied. Wedged between ethics and the law, the justification for putting people behind bars rests on the premise that as a consequence of certain actions, some people should lose all freedom (which we can define in this instance as control over one's bodily habits, pastimes, relationships, and mobility). It takes muscular political capacity to realize widescale dispossession of people who have formal rights, and historically those who fill prisons have collectively lacked political clout commensurate with the theoretical power that rights suggest (see, e.g., Dayan 1999). In contrast, during most of the modern history of prisons, those officially devoid of rights—indigenous and enslaved women and men, for example, or new immigrants, or married white women—rarely saw the inside of a cage, because their unfreedom was guaranteed by other means (Christianson 1998; E. B. Freedman 1996).

But what about crime? Doesn't prison exist because there are criminals? Yes and no. While common sense suggests a natural connection between "crime" and "prison," what counts as crime in fact changes, and what happens to people convicted of crimes does not, in all times and places, result in prison sentences. Defined in the simple terms of the secular state, crime means a violation of the law. Laws change, depending on what, in a social order, counts as stability, and who, in a social order, needs to be controlled. Let's look at a range of examples. After the Civil War, an onslaught of legal maneuvers designed to guarantee the cheap availability of southern Black people's labor outlawed both "moving around" and "standing still" (Franklin 1998), and convicts worked without choice or compensation to build the region's infrastructure and industrial system (A. Lichtenstein 1996; B.M. Wilson 2000a). From the 1890s onward, a rush of Jim Crow laws both fed on earlier labor-focused statutes and sparked the nationwide apartheid craze. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1919) prohibited the manufacture, import, export, or sale of intoxicating liquors, at a time when most drugs that are now illegal were not (Lusane 1991). In Texas, driving while drinking alcohol is legal, whereas a marijuana seed can put a person in prison for life. Prostitution is legal in some places. In others, the remedy for theft is restitution, not a cage. Murder is the result of opportunity, motive, and means, and the fact of a killing begins rather than ends an inquiry into the shifting legal nature of such a loss. Numerous histories and criminological treatises show shifts over time in what crime is and why it matters (see, e.g., Linebaugh 1992; Christianson 1998). Contemporary comparative studies demonstrate how societies that are relatively similar—industrialized, diverse, largely immigrant—differ widely in their assessments and experience of disorderly behavior and the remedies for what's generally accepted as wrong (Archer and Gartner 1984). As we can see that crime is not fixed, it follows that crime's relationship to prisons is the outcome of social theory and practice, rather than the only possible source of stability through control.

How are prisons supposed to produce stability through controlling what counts as crime? Four theories condense two and a quarter centuries of experience into conflicting and generally overlapping explanations for why societies decide they should lock people out by locking them in. Each theory, which has its intellectuals, practitioners, and critics, turns on one of four key concepts: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, or incapacitation. Let's take them in turn. The shock of retribution—loss of liberty—supposedly keeps convicted persons from doing again, upon release, what sent them to prison. Retribution's specter, deterrence, allegedly dissuades people who can project themselves into a convicted person's jumpsuit from doing what might result in lost liberty. Rehabilitation proposes that the unfreedom of prisons provides an occasion for the acquisition of sobriety and skills, so that, on release, formerly incarcerated people can live lives away from the criminal dragnet. And, finally, incapacitation, the least ambitious of all these theories, simply calculates that those locked up cannot make trouble outside of prison. These theories relate to each other as reforms—not as steps away from brutality or inconsistency, but as attempts to make prisons produce social stability through applying some mix of care, indifference, compulsory training, and cruelty to people in cages.

If the fourth concept, incapacitation, is not ambitious in a behavioral or psychological sense, it is, ironically, the theory that undergirds the most ambitious prison-building project in the history of the world. Incapacitation doesn't pretend to change anything about people except where they are. It is in a simpleminded way, then, a geographical solution that purports to solve social problems by extensively and repeatedly removing people from disordered, deindustrialized milieus and depositing them somewhere else.

But does the absence of freedom for many ensure stability in the form of lower-crime communities, and idled courts and police officers, for others? We can hazard a quick guess by asking a different question: would the prevailing theories shift and mingle over time, persistently reforming reformed reforms, if the outcome were stability? Probably not. And now there's more to be said on the subject, since we can count and compare outcomes. State by state, those jurisdictions that have not built a lot of prisons and thrown more people into them have enjoyed greater decreases in crime than states where incapacitation became a central governmental activity. For the latter, there are similar patterns of contrariness: within California, counties that aggressively use mandatory sentencing, such as the notoriously harsh "three strikes" law, have experienced feebler decreases in crime than counties that use the law sparingly.

Here we must briefly digress and reflect further on prison demographics, in particular, their exclusive domination of working or workless poor, most of whom are not white. Since it has never before been so easy for people of color to get into prison (jail is another matter [Irwin 1985]), we have to ask how racism works to lock in both them and more poor white people as well. To what degree has the regular observer, of any race, learned both willfully and unconsciously to conclude that the actual people who go to prison are the same as those the abolitionist Ruth Morris called the "terrible few." The "terrible few" are a statistically insignificant and socially unpredictable handful of the planet's humans whose psychopathic actions are the stuff of folktales, tabloids (including the evening news and reality television), and emergency legislation. When it comes to crime and prisons, the few whose difference might horribly erupt stand in for the many whose difference is emblazoned on surfaces of skin, documents, and maps—color, credo, citizenship, communities, convictions. The paroxysmal thinking required to make such a substitution is the outcome of many prods and barbs, in which aggression, violence, order, and duty conflate into an alleged force of American "human nature" (Lutz 2001). This thinking reveals the imaginary relationships people have with neighbors recast as strangers in a thoroughly racialized and income-stratified political economy that regularly redefines possibilities while never setting absolute positive or negative limits.

With the vexing question of difference in mind, let's return to the problem of spatial unevenness. If places that spare the cage are calmer than places that use imprisonment more aggressively, why is this so? Why wouldn't higher rates of incapacitation produce more stability? As it turns out, if we ratchet our perspective down to an extremely intimate view and compare, we see that identical locations—in terms of the social, cultural, and economic characteristics of inhabitants—diverge over time into different qualities of place when one of them experiences high rates of imprisonment of residents. And, more, the "tipping point," when things start to get really bad, is not very deep. Only two or three need be removed from n to produce greater instability in a community of people who, when employed, make, move, or care for things (Clear et al. 2001; Rose and Clear 2002). Why? For one thing, households stretch from neighborhood to visiting room to courtroom, with a consequent thinning of financial and emotional resources (Comfort 2002). Looking around the block at all the homes, research shows that increased use of policing and state intervention in everyday problems hasten the demise of the informal customary relationships that social calm depends on (Clear et al. 2001). People stop looking out for each other and stop talking about anything that matters in terms of neighborly well-being. Cages induce or worsen mental illness in prisoners (Haney 2001; Kupers 1999), most of whom eventually come out to service-starved streets. Laws (such as lifetime bans from financial aid) and fiscal constraints displacing dollars from social investment to social expense (O'Connor [1973] 2000) lock former prisoners out of education, employment, housing, and many other stabilizing institutions of everyday life. In such inhospitable places, everybody isolates. And when something disruptive, confusing, or undesirable happens, people dial 911. As a result, crime goes up, along with unhappiness, and those who are able to do so move away in search of a better environment, concentrating unhappiness in their wake. In other words, prisons wear out places by wearing out people, irrespective of whether they have done time (Mauer and Chesney-Lind 2002).


Excerpted from Golden Gulag by Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations

Prologue: The Bus
1. Introduction
2. The California Political Economy
3. The Prison Fix
4. Crime, Croplands, and Capitalism
5. Mothers Reclaiming Our Children
6. What Is to Be Done?
Epilogue: Another Bus


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