PRISONS, SURPLUS, CRISIS, AND OPPOSITION IN GLOBALIZING CALIFORNIA
By RUTH WILSON GILMORE
If you ever wondered why California became an incarceration state, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s “Golden Gulag” provides some insight.
In her book, Gilmore talks about prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. She demonstrates how the state wields enormous power over poor communities through the use of prisons.
Published in 2007, the book remains relevant in today’s age of mass incarceration. It speaks of what author Mike Davis describes as “the political economy of super-incarceration and the slave plantations that California calls prisons.”
The introduction is dense with details about California’s political economy. The central thesis is: California’s prison boom is a “prison fix” to a fourfold problem of surplus: capital, land, labor and state capacity.
Gilmore, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and American Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY), focuses on aspects of mass incarceration that are less analyzed. She explains the history of California’s political economy so that we understand the role of government and private capital, particularly in the form of billions of dollars provided by the military through the Department of Defense that helped influence the growth of the prison industry.
Gilmore contends that waging constant war, in one form or another, has undergirded the entire U.S. economy as well as California’s economy.
The year 1982 is critical to Gilmore’s thesis. It was the year the legislature approved prison building projects in Riverside, LA, and San Diego. It was also the year $495,000,000 in general obligation bonds were approved to build prisons with the express goal of enhancing public safety. The legislature exempted CDC’s bidding and budgeting practices from competitive processes and instead assigned work to outside consultants to guarantee that construction moved quickly. That year the goal of prisons transitioned from rehabilitation to incapacitation.
When the legislature enacted the Determinate Sentencing Law it changed the purpose of imprisonment to punishment. Gilmore points out that a political crusade caused the prison population to grow exponentially. Gilmore demonstrates how California sacrificed its educational system to devise more social controls through the use of Land Revenue Bonds.
Gilmore also examines what became of the economic, demographic and geographic push for partnerships between CDC and various Central Valley towns who wanted to revitalize their economy through the labor and land improvements that would result. Corcoran is one of the places that become essential to Gilmore’s case study. The city suffered a serious economic downturn, in part because of ten years of climate change calamities. Most Corcoran residents were hopeful that a prison would put real property to work and generate employment.
Another city the book analyzes is Susanville. Gilmore writes that the local leadership was impressed with the potential of a prison to revitalize the city. The prison was built, despite vocal objections, but the town’s hopes were crushed. Employment and other opportunities for locals did not improve, confirming research that shows that, over time, prison towns compare unfavorably with depressed rural places that do not acquire prisons.
At the end of the book, Gilmore offers ten ideas to effect change through movements and community building. She offers suggestions to help recognize and confront the dehumanizing practices that led to mass incarceration and worldwide genocide.
“Change must be political, economic, spiritual, and most importantly, collective,” Gilmore writes