Blogs > Cliopatria > Tony Platt: Review of Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (UC Press)

Jan 3, 2007 9:00 pm

Tony Platt: Review of Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California (UC Press)

[Tony Platt is professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento. His latest book is "Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler's Nuremberg Laws, From Patton's Trophy to Public Memorial" (Paradigm Publishers, 2006).]

California may lag behind many other states in high school graduation rates, welfare benefits and investment in public health, but when it comes to punishment, we rank at or near the top. We've crammed 173,000 convicts into the nation's largest prison system, designed to house at least one-third less. Our prison suicide and recidivism rates approach twice the national average. And we have one of the most extravagant penal systems in the country, costing taxpayers about the same as the state spends on higher education.
In the mid-1970s, under pressure from Ronald Reagan and the Board of Regents, the University of California closed Berkeley's School of Criminology. Several colleagues and I lost our jobs, but more important, California lost an opportunity to hear voices of opposition to the unregulated police-industrial complex launched during the Nixon presidency (1969-1974). By 1977, as public spending on policing peaked, national and local priorities shifted to incarceration, with California in the vanguard.

Today, 90 penitentiaries, small prisons and camps stretch across 900 miles of the fifth-largest economy in the world. It hasn't always been this way. Between 1852 and 1964, California built only 12 prisons. Since 1984, the state has erected 43 penal institutions, making it a global leader in prison construction.

Most of the new prisons have been built in out-of-the way rural areas, making it easier to lose sight of the humanity of the people we warehouse: mostly men (93 percent), mostly Latinos and African Americans (two-thirds), mostly from big cities (60 percent from Los Angeles) and mostly unemployed or the working poor.

Before the Clinton presidency, we used to hear national leaders debate the merits of punishment versus rehabilitation. But after the Democratic Party joined its Republican counterpart on the low road, politicians of both parties now churn out the same law-and-order platitudes. Occasionally a major scandal will appear in the headlines, such as the recent receivership imposed by a San Francisco federal judge on a prison health care system that violates the U.S. Constitution. But you wouldn't have known from California's gubernatorial race that the prison system is the shame of our state, testimony to the persistence of institutionalized racism, the widening economic divide and the gutting of social programs.

How and why this happened in California is the simple question explored in complex ways in the long-awaited "Golden Gulag." Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a geographer and professor at the University of Southern California, is an experienced activist in the anti-prison movement, and she has written an impressive first book that stands as a model of politically engaged scholarship and an indictment of California's "archipelago of concrete and steel cages."

Gilmore begins by swatting away the usual cliches about crime and punishment. The right claims that prisons reduce crime, but California's crime rate was decreasing before the prison boom took off. The left argues that prisons are the "new slavery," designed to provide cheap labor to mercenary corporations, but, Gilmore notes, "very few prisoners work for anybody while they're locked up." Others have suggested that the 54,000-strong California Correctional Peace Officers' Association, with its hefty political war chest, calls the shots in Sacramento. But the guards' union didn't have enough clout even to stop the governor from recently deciding to transfer 5,000 prisoners to private prisons as far away as Tennessee to alleviate the crowding crisis.

Having dispatched the prevailing common wisdom, "Golden Gulag" digs deeply into the issues. In this sophisticated, interdisciplinary study, brimming with new ideas, political savvy and moral urgency, Gilmore takes us on a demanding intellectual exploration of California's economic, political, spatial and cultural history. To understand the prison situation, she tells us, we need to understand four interconnected developments, none of which has made people feel more secure in their everyday lives.

First, most of the new prisons were built on formerly irrigated agricultural lands and in regions seeking to resuscitate their depressed economies. Second, the state benefited landowners, construction and utility companies by borrowing from public funds to finance the prison boom. The small towns that hoped for a bonanza, Gilmore says, have been victimized by a boondoggle. Third, changes in California's economy, combined with cuts in social programs, have aggravated chronic unemployment among urban low-wage workers, most of whom are Latino and African American. Finally, the majority of California's politicians jumped on the law-and-order bandwagon to promote "sentence-enhancing legislation" in the 1980s, followed in 1994 by public endorsement of the "three strikes" policy. It wasn't hard to quickly fill up the new concrete cages until they were overflowing in 2006.

This damning portrait would be depressing indeed if not for the voices of opposition and resistance permeating "Golden Gulag" from the first to last page. Drawing upon her own experiences in this movement, Gilmore provides us with a richly textured account of how working-class women of color and rural and urban activists have begun to challenge California's penal colony. She introduces us to the unsung heroes of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, who, like their counterparts in Argentina, represent a public conscience. "A principled sense of mortal urgency," Gilmore writes, "inspires hope."

There are a few disappointments. Gilmore's history begins in the late 20th century; we would have benefited from learning about how California's original 19th century prisons overflowed with Chinese prisoners and other working-class convicts, all of whom were forced to work under grueling conditions for agricultural employers or build the state's infrastructure. Stylistically, some of "Golden Gulag's" denser theoretical passages could be thinned, and some readers might need a map to guide them on a journey that takes many important detours.

But these concerns in no way diminish the originality of this groundbreaking book. In the past century there were only a handful of innovative writers who prodded us to think deeply and imaginatively about crime and punishment in the modern world. Topping my list are Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer's "Punishment and Social Structure" (1939), Erving Goffman's "Asylums" (1961), Michel Foucault's "Discipline & Punish" (1977), Stuart Hall's "Policing the Crisis" (1978) and Mike Davis' "City of Quartz" (1990). Now, if you want to understand why progressive California leads the Western world with its regressive system of punishment, Gilmore's "Golden Gulag" is the first must-read book of the 21st century.

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