By Lydia P. Wood and James K. Anderson
Screening of the documentary Friday April 21 at Storm Hall West room 11 on San Diego State University campus. Following the film, which will be shown from 5 to 6:30 p.m., there will be a panel discussion about mass incarceration with emphasis on how people are organizing against it.
Author and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore coined the term “Golden Gulag” in her 2007 book by the same name to label and critique what, despite destroying lives, has become a disturbingly normal way of life in the “Golden State” of California.
“I called my book ‘Golden Gulag,’” Gilmore says in the documentary film, “Visions of Abolition: From Critical Resistance to a New Way of Life,” “in order to resonate with the images of totalitarian state incarceration … to emphasize that the ‘gulag’ is not simply a building with cages in it, but it is an entire way of life, an entire way of political and social and economic life. It extends from the places where prisoners come from to the places where prisons are built.
And it extends not only through the movement of the bodies and persons of the prisoners but through the movement of the ideas and capacities for change of resources and so forth that made it possible for California to embark on the biggest prison-building project in the history of the world.”
A focus on imprisonment and anti-carceral education is crucial, we argue, because prisons represent and reproduce a slew of damaging social and historical trends which were incubated here on the West Coast.
As Gilmore points out in her book, poverty among children in California increased 25 percent between 1969 and 1979 and then jumped 67 percent within the following decade and a half until 1995. Today, a quarter of California children under six live in poverty, as do more than 25 percent of young kids in Orange County, according to a 2017 report from the Public Policy Institute of California. Amidst an epidemic of childhood poverty, the OC, of course, is also home to the Newport Beach upper-crust and some of the wealthiest sectors of society.
Socioeconomically speaking, as Gilmore argues, California has bifurcated into rich and increasingly poor – a process that unfolded alongside the prison boom a few decades back.
Education played a role. For those less educated, joblessness increased 84 percent among Black men and 30 percent among white men between 1970 and 1980. Manufacturing jobs, many of which were decently-paid and well-organized, decreased 9.6 percent between 1985 and 1995. This all coincided, Gilmore suggests, with the emergence of mass incarceration as the go-to solution to deal with people – primarily the growing ranks of the poor and disproportionately persons of color – rendered increasingly disposable.
To manage this disposable population, the California Department of Corrections had six to 10 new prisons in some stage of planning, design or construction from 1982 through 1996, at an average cost per facility of a quarter billion dollars.
Under the administration of George Deukmejian, governor of California from 1983 to 1991, fees increased at colleges across the state and state budget increases for fighting crime were proposed despite declining crime rates. From the year just before he took office until 2000, California’s prison population increased 500 percent, Gilmore observed.
Since 2014 California has had the largest number of adults under correctional supervision of any state, aside from Texas.
Incarceration has come to be seen as socially necessary and natural, even among progressives.
As Gilmore documented, when SB 2156 – a bill to sell bonds to build private prisons that came up for a vote in the state legislature in 1996 – the late Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), a former activist famous for writing the legendary “Port Huron Statement,” which popularized Students for a Democratic Society, voted for it. He claimed privatizing prisons was necessary to save public education. Gilmore added that in 1994, Kathleen Brown, a Democrat and former State Treasurer who is also the sister of current governor Jerry Brown, “devised a tax-exempt college bond that parents could buy for their children; the proceeds of the bond sale would go to building prisons for, presumably, other people’s children.”
As one of many efforts to educate otherwise, against the supposedly normal state of plucking people from communities and putting them in cages, we want to invite you to join us in envisioning abolition on April 21 and discussing how best to realize “A New Way of Life” in California beyond the “Golden Gulag”. Contact Lydia Wood at email@example.com for more information.
James K. Anderson, Ph.D., is a déclassé writer, journalist, scholar, social theorist, prison abolitionist and adjunct professor who is teaching at Mt. San Jacinto College in Menifee during the spring 2017 semester.
Lydia P. Wood is a Ph.D Candidate in Geography at San Diego State University / University of California, Santa Barbara, an educator, and activist.