Livin the American Dream

The goal of this course over the past three months has been to examine the motivations and intentions behind the growing phenomenon of mass incarceration that exists in this country. We have researched this question from various vantage points by referencing historical, sociological, political, economic, and philosophical data. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s study, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, integrates each of these approaches to studying the issue of prison expansion in California during the 20th Century. This study attempts to uncover why and how the state of California went about the biggest prison building project in the history of the world. Gilmore suggests that prison is a geographic solution to the political and economic crises that the state creates. Through extensive interdisciplinary research, Gilmore proves that the issue of mass incarceration is the result of inter-institutional strife of a nation that has failed to meet the needs of all its citizens.

First, Gilmore establishes the intentions of a prison system as well as possible explanations for its extensive growth over the past forty years. She references three possible explanations for the booming prison population. The first is increased public concern about crime rates and social deviance, which sparked tough on crime policies. Second is the drug epidemic and threat to public safety posed by the unrestrained use of illegal substances. The third explanation is the structural changes in employment opportunities that have forced people out of jobs and into illegal ways of making money. Historically, prisons go about solving problems such as these by deterring crime in four ways: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. The generally accepted goal for prisons today is incapacitation. The prison system solves problems caused by social deviance by isolating a target population and thus incapacitating further crime.

The state of California presents an interesting case because of its unique history and societal structure. California’s diversity in land, industry, and population has created a differentiated labor force, meaning workers separated starkly based on race, ethnicity, gender, locale, and citizenship. The inequalities that exist in California today are not conspiracies; rather, they are rooted in historically uneven development of the state in multiple arenas that began in the 1930s with Great Depression stimulus reforms and extended into the turmoil of the mid-1960s. Uneven development created excessive surpluses, which in turn stimulates crisis. California experienced surpluses in land, labor, finance capital, and sate capacity, which lead to quick-fix policies that helped some yet harmed others. Prisons are aimed at fixing these problems of instability and inequality. Prison building is not the only way to absorb these surpluses, but it did use a lot of idle land, get capital invested into a public institution, and take more than 160,000 low-wage workers off the streets. The development of the prison-industrial complex and the privatization of prisons for profit have further expanded the prison movement.

Gilmore does a very thorough job of explaining why California presents an ideal case for the explosion of prisons. She examines the case from a historical, economic, sociological, and political standpoint. However, the most powerful statement proving that the prison boom is worthy of questioning came from a philosophical viewpoint: “If the 20th century was the age of genocide on a planetary scale, then in order to avoid repeating history, we ought to come to grips with dehumanization” (243). The prison system is the ultimate example of state-sanctioned dehumanization in America today. Instead of dealing with social problems created by inequality, we choose not to deal with them by locking up those who “create” these problems. We do not see these individuals worthy of rehabilitation. This is an extremely dehumanizing practice. When did we decide that certain members of our society are not worthy of the basic protection of the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? It would also be naïve to ignore the stark racial inequalities represented in the prison population today. Those who are at the “bottom” of the socioeconomic ladder, primarily minorities, are those termed “deviant”, and thus targeted for imprisonment. In any society, social stratification will occur. Social stratification presents problems in employment, electoral politics, equal earnings, and community development. Instead of coming to terms with these problems and searching for innovative ways to solve them, the prison system slaps a band-aid on these wounds when reconstructive surgery is needed. This process can only begin when we as a nation recognize that all members of this society are capable of input in our democratic system and ultimately, worthy of basic human rights.


5 Responses to “Golden Gulag: The final word on America’s prison boom”

  1. Pete on May 20th, 2009 11:49 pm

    I just got this book for my birthday. Can’t wait to dig my teeth into it!

  2. Neo on June 30th, 2010 10:13 am
  3. American Tribune » Blog Archive » 2013…Jubilee Year? on January 6th, 2013 1:33 am

    […] all, we’re not so far away from such even now. There are 2.4 million souls in America’s gulag already with some 85% guilty of no predatory crime. Primarily, the gulag is warehoused surplus […]

  4. Critical Mass Progress | CI: The PIC – Old School/New School 2 on January 30th, 2013 8:00 pm

    […] analysis of the rise of the pic in California. Eschewing the usual simplistic explanations, Gilmore links the expansion to a complex interaction with a host of other developments: changes in the labor market; expectations of how state apparatuses will interact with the poor, […]

  5. CI: The PIC – Old School/New School 2 « Moorbey'z Blog on February 5th, 2013 7:18 pm

    […] analysis of the rise of the pic in California. Eschewing the usual simplistic explanations, Gilmore links the expansion to a complex interaction with a host of other developments: changes in the labor market; expectations of how state apparatuses will interact with the poor, […]