Prison State

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Gilmore (University of California Press, 412 pages)

For those involved in studying critically the U.S. criminal justice system, Ruth Gilmore's Golden Gulag has been a promise long-delayed. The book has been talked about, in often reverential tones, for many years now. After all, in addition to being a first-rank scholar -- Gilmore is a geography professor at USC and director of the university's American Studies and Ethnicity program -- the author is also one of the country's leading anti-prison activists.

Who better than her, therefore, to answer two fundamental questions: Why did California build only 12 prisons in the first century-plus of its existence as a state, and 23 more prisons in the decades after 1984? And why did the state's political leadership and electorate support an expansion of corrections expenditures from two percent of the state's general fund in the 1970s to over eight percent by the early 21st century, in the process transforming the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as it is now known, into the largest of all California state agencies?

Hype such as that which accompanied this book does, of course, carry risk for the author. Too often, the reality fails to meet the expectations, and even a good book can seem to fall flat as a result. Fortunately for Gilmore, Golden Gulag generally avoids this pitfall. While it is oftentimes an extremely technical book -- relying on complex, Marxist-influenced discussions of power relationships, class and race dynamics, and economic conditions to explore the startling three-decades-long growth in California's correctional system -- the author succeeds in synthesizing a variety of disparate themes and arguments to tell a story of profound societal transformation.

Like Michel Foucault, she is fascinated by the implications of the state taking incarceration as one of its primary functions. Like Loic Wacquant, she is intrigued by the overlap between race and class in America and the staggeringly high incarceration rate for poor people of color that results. Unlike both, however, she is prepared to do the nitty-gritty economic analysis that sheds light on why incarceration has so blossomed in recent years.

For decades after World War II, the author argues, California thrived on what might be termed a model of "military Keynesianism," an interlocking grid of subsidies, tax rebates, and bureaucracies, all geared to produce near-full employment through over-investment in high-tech military industries and the expenditure of considerable sums of money keeping poorer classes afloat via welfare programs of one sort or another. From the 1960s on, that model began to collapse as the social compact behind New Deal welfare policies dissolved. In its wake, Gilmore theorizes, a "workfare-warfare" model emerged, one that kept the military spending intact but increasingly replaced social expenditures with a more coercive focus, including a propensity to over-invest in prisons. "In my view," she explains, "prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis."


Exploring how and why the state of California transformed itself into an engine for mass incarceration is the heart of the Golden Gulag project. The standard answer is that, as crime rose, the public demanded a more expansive use of incarceration, eventually resulting in measurable drop-offs in the state's crime rate. Wrong, says Gilmore. Chronologically what happened is that crime rose, then crime fell beginning in the early 1990s -- for reasons having little to do with tougher sentencing laws -- and then, primarily after the fall, politicians toughened up on crime and dramatically expanded the state's penal apparatus. Three Strikes, for example, was enacted in 1994, a couple years into the decade-plus fall-off in crime rates.

If you want to know why so many prisons were built, Gilmore argues, don't look to crime rates. Look instead to economic depression in agricultural regions of the state, and the search for new jobs and new ways of attracting state dollars in these areas. Look at the collapse of social services in urban areas of southern California. Look at the state's aggressive targeting of young Latino and black "gang members" (of course there were plenty of hardened gang-bangers, but many others tended just to be teenagers hanging out with the wrong crowd in poor neighborhoods) in L.A. and other population hubs.

California's prison population mushroomed from under 20,000 to well over 170,000 -- one of the most rapid penal expansions in history. Gilmore's achievement lies in connecting that expansion to a host of other developments: changes in the labor market; in expectations of how state apparatuses will interact with the poor, those deemed "surplus labor"; in what industries and economic growth systems government is prepared to subsidize; in tax structures; and in relationships between different races and classes over the decades.

Gilmore makes no pretense of being neutral in her telling of this story. From the get-go, Golden Gulag argues that this epic transformation has had, and will continue to have, devastating consequences. "Prisons," Gilmore writes, "wear out places by wearing out people, irrespective of whether they have done time."


The book, extremely well-researched and boasting a fascinating bibliography, explores the big-picture linkages very well. Gilmore is slightly less adept, however, at telling the story from the ground-level on up. She does, for example, talk at length about California's infamously harsh three strikes law, but the only time she mentions the murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klass -- the 1993 event that made international headlines, stirred up a frenzy of popular hysteria in California, and acted as a catalyst for passage of the ham-fisted law -- is in a footnote toward the end of the book. Golden Gulag, I would argue, shortchanges the agency of enraged electorates and fails to adequately account for the creation of exceedingly vocal and influential victims' rights groups..

Similarly, Gilmore writes at length about tough-on-crime politicians but only briefly delves into the actions and motivations of Governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, two maestros at manipulating fear of crime to political advantage. In fact, one of the most interesting bits of data in the whole book -- the one stating that California's legislators enacted 1,200 new criminal justice-related laws in the decades during the penal expansion, thus, presumably dramatically expanding the scope of the system by expanding the definition of imprisonable offenses -- is buried two hundred pages in. Gilmore hurriedly mentions the politicians most influential in this legislative incarceration-stampede before moving the narrative and analysis onto other topics.

When Gilmore does use individual examples to buttress her arguments -- in chapters on how the hamlet of Corcoran transformed itself into a maximum security prison hub and on how families of prisoners from Southern California coalesced into the influential activist group Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (Mothers ROC) -- the narrative gets bogged down in detail. Readers do not necessarily need to know, say, the minutiae of the local cotton economy in Corcoran prior to its transformation or insider details about obscure ideological debates within Mothers ROC.

But these are relatively minor criticisms. Taken as a whole, Golden Gulag is a valuable addition to the growing literature on America's redesign as a prison-heavy nation. The data is fascinating, the analysis compelling and deeply disturbing. It deserves, and hopefully will get, a wide readership.

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Demos. The author of Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote, and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House (The New Press, 2006), he lives in Sacramento and teaches writing at the University of California at Davis.

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