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Stopping the PIC in Its Tracks

By: 
Ari Wohlfeiler
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    At its most basic level, the goal of organizing against prison expansion is to prevent the construction of cages, therefore making it impossible to lock people in them. Our job in the anti-expansion movement is to explain what happens when cities of cages are built and used to hold people captive by exposing the myth that more cages create more order. This work reveals the ways that cages actually reproduce—rather than prevent—disorder in the forms of white supremacy, sexism and heterosexism, class violence, and other structures of oppression.

Anti-expansion work demonstrates that the central antagonism in the prison industrial complex (PIC) is not “evil doers” versus “law and order,” but rather, people hurt by mass incarceration versus people who benefit from it.

When we show how prison construction and operations take money away from health care and education, we are able to build alliances between education and health care access organizers and the anti-expansion movement. When we show how prisons are as harmful to communities as landfills, power plants, mega-dairies, Wal-Marts, and other industries, we see our demands coalesce with those of the environmental and economic justice movements in targeted communities.

Arrest and imprisonment orchestrate the violent migration of people into exceedingly unhealthy places within the PIC. Contesting the very construction of those places undermines their viability. Fights over expansion of the PIC, then, are struggles against a uniquely geographical structure of violence. As scholar and organizer Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, the PIC is a “geographical solution to social problems.” Its primary feature is its fearsome management of our physical locations—locking people in small cages against their will—to maintain a rickety balance of extreme inequality. Prison construction feeds off of geographically situated political marginalization of the communities where the prisons will be built or expanded.

When anti-expansionists expose this dynamic, we can better organize to topple those political imbalances and create healthy political power structures in their place.
Ultimately the anti-expansion movement also has to be a movement for prison closure. Even if we could erase every new prison bed on the drawing board, we already have millions to eliminate, and in the last few years this work has taken critical steps forward.

In California, women prisoners in Chowchilla are working on a media project to redesign or “repurpose” the 650-acre cage-city in which they live. In Talulah, Louisiana, people are fighting to convert a closed youth prison into an education center. Anti-prison organizations in California have banded together as Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), the only existing statewide prison closure coalition. These are projects that connect prison expansion with alternatives to imprisonment, and guide us toward a world that looks more like one we can live in.

The corrections market

For the first time in a generation, the expansion of state prisons has slowed and even reversed in some places. But local jails, INS/ICE detention centers, juvenile lock-ups, and mental hospital prisons are booming. Correctional News recently reported that “[t]he biggest forces at work in the corrections market today are the need to control paroled sex offenders, the fast-growing population of chronically mentally ill inmates, the increase in women offenders, and the trend toward building more regional jails.”

California and New York have crafted mechanisms to force counties to build jails to hold state and federal prisoners. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has pulled the private prison industry out of Wall Street’s gutter with a continuing series of sweet-heart contracts. In Calhoun County, Michigan, the sheriff has even hired a lobbyist to increase the number of ICE detainees sent to their county jail. These trends put the broader movement for social justice on notice that people without documentation, young people, women, people convicted of sex crimes, parolees, and people with mental illness and disabilities remain primary targets for the coming wave of imprisonment.

The severe state budget shortfalls of the early 2000s may have created the most powerful and unlikely allies in the fight against prison expansion. Around the country, elected officials chose to slow down, stop, or even reverse expansion plans so they could close state budget gaps. Surprisingly, this happened more frequently in more conservative states where elected officials had strong “tough on crime” credentials, were unfriendly to organized labor, and wanted to cut social spending. Now that most coffers are filling, however, “fiscal conservatism” and “tough on crime” have renewed their more typical symbiosis. An urgent challenge now for anti-expansionists is to show that we can’t afford more cages, even if we can afford the price tag.

During these acute budget crises, anti-expansion organizers learned to connect with education, health care, labor, and other social service organizers, creating joint demands to prioritize health and education over imprisonment. In California, organizations affiliated with the Coalition for Effective Public Safety (CEPS) and Education not Incarceration (ENI) coalitions learned to say that imprisonment is a worse investment than education each time another education cut was inflicted. In 2006, we’ll have to refigure those alliances given recent increases to both prison and education budget lines. One way forward might be pushing that work toward divorcing the PIC from the realm of social services altogether.

Overcrowding

Another pressing challenge is to more powerfully answer the charge that prison construction is the only answer to severe overcrowding. Overcrowding is an intersection of the issues of expansion, the revolving doors of parole and probation, discrimination against former prisoners, excessive criminalization, alternatives to imprisonment and political power. When the “overcrowding” cry results in the construction of more cages, we can be sure an alleged crime wave or stricter parole “reform” will follow. Each time one part of the PIC grows, it encourages the growth of every other part.

The up-side of this is that if we can beat back the current drive to build, we won’t just be doing anti-expansion organizing, we will be creating barriers to new rounds of criminalization and forcing the provision of supportive, rather than punitive, resources for people coming home. The Community Alternatives to Jail Expansion (CAJE) Project out of New York City is doing just that. By offering models to reduce jail populations through diversion, alternative sentencing, and de-criminalization, they are helping organizers in far-flung counties defeat expansion projects.
While politicians and “experts” debate the newest “evidence-based practices,” the anti-expansion movement demonstrates that the best and only way to stop overcrowding is reduce the number of available cages.

Three myths

Anti-expansion organizing needs to continue fighting three myths that force our short- and long-term goals into conflict: 1) that private prisons are our biggest problem; 2) that prisons help local rural economies; and 3) that specialized and smaller prisons are better.
Private prisons simply aren’t that big a share of the PIC, and often by railing only against privatization, one may implicitly or explicitly be suggesting that a public prison would be a better solution. Prisons of any kind don’t help local economies. If they did, they wouldn’t be in rural and poor communities of color, and prison towns would not be struggling economically compared to similar towns without prisons.

The issue of smaller, “nicer” prisons currently haunts juvenile justice reform. Smaller, “nicer” prisons never remain smaller or nicer, and bigger and older prisons don’t close when new ones open. Maybe most importantly, there’s no reason to think that smaller prisons are better than no prisons at all.

The last time prison that administrators and criminologists were talking about “reform” and “rehabilitation” as often as they have been in the last two years was in the mid 1970s. At that time, the shift was a defensive reaction to growing radical anti-prison movements. But by the early 1980s, the biggest prison-building boom in world history had been kicked-off.

California has provided a distressing re-enactment of this pattern. In early 2006, as brazen prison administrators proclaim their devotion to rehabilitation, the governor announces a plan to build 90,000-plus new cells over the next ten years. The most recent defensive popularization of “rehabilitation” might well be a result of our increasing strength, but it illuminates a path of evasion and re-entrenchment. Stopping the prison boom of the late 20th century was a hard-won battle. It is a victory we need to protect and extend as the dust settles.

The struggle against the PIC isn’t a struggle over the philosophy of our criminal justice system. The real fight isn’t over how to lock people up, or how many police we have on which streets. The real struggle is over whether or not we will accept the myth that the disorder in our lives is caused by “evil individuals” and that the PIC is the only way to mitigate that disorder. Undeniably, the supremacy of the PIC as an organizing force in our world is the chief source the disorder we face. We should take the opportunity to insist that the PIC be shrunk, starved, marginalized, and dismantled. Law by law, cop by cop, and cage by cage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ari Wohlfeiler is a member of Critical Resistance and the California Prison Moratorium Project.