Summarizing “Golden Gulag”
Golden Gulag, written by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, analyzes the rapid growth of California’s prison system. It tries to unveil the reasons behind the Prison boom in California. Between 1852 and 1964, the state only contained 12 prisons. By 1984, the state had built 43 more correctional centers, making it the largest prison building system in the world. One might make the assumption that the rapid growth of the prison building system was due to an increase in crime. However, Gilmore argues that the crime rate was decreasing before the prisons were built.
So what was the cause behind these new prisons?
Firstly, most of the correctional institutions were built on previously flooded agricultural lands and in areas that were trying to revive their poor economies. Secondly, the landowners, manufacturers, and other service companies were all paid by the state, since they were taking loans from public funds to invest in mass imprisonment. To find the reasons behind the prison boom, Gilmore suggests that the audience look not at the crime rates, but to look at the significant change in California’s economy, which in turn led to reduction of social programs. The rural areas of the state were in a financial crisis that created long-term unemployment for African Americans and Latinos who were low paid workers.
Gilmore suggests looking at the new techniques that captured state dollars in these deteriorating areas. She talks about the “workfare-warfare” model that kept military spending in perfect condition but immensely reduced the other social costs due to the investment in prisons. As a result, Social Services like Education, Health Care, and Housing collapsed in the central areas of South California. California’s politicians then passed sentence-enhancing legislation in the 1980s, followed by the “Three Strikes” law, which was established in 1994. The “Three Strikes” Act can increase a person’s sentence to at least 25 years if he is previously found guilty of 2 or more serious crimes. The idea behind the law was to reduce violence in communities (Gilmore 107.)
Unfortunately, the law was undoubtedly misused. For example, we take Pearl, whose 31-year-old son was arrested for shoplifting a pack of razor blades from a discount drugstore. She was shocked to discover that they charged him with a Third Strike felony instead of a petty theft offense. The state “worked systematically” to keep people caged as part of a plan to seize people off the street with justified excuses. The law tried to restrain those committing the crimes by keeping them behind bars for as long as possible rather than focusing on the cause of the crimes. It didn’t take long for the prisons to fill up as working class African Americans and people of color experienced the most intensive criminalization because of their race and ethnicity. Also, other minorities and young teenagers were aggressively targeted by the state, automatically considered to be associated with gangs. As a result, underprivileged people got caught up in the criminal justice system, which led to the astoundingly high rates of imprisonment.
Gilmore argues, “Prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crisis, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis.” Many of the detention centers are not actually operated by the government but by for-profit companies. This way, private prison companies benefit from keeping more people locked up and make fortunes off the rising business of prisons. In 1992, Mothers ROC (short for Mothers Reclaiming Our Children) came into existence when the police was picking up young men without just cause. The group started with few members, but soon attracted women from all different races, such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinas and other women who were eager to fight for their children being locked up in these jails. The organization ultimately consisted of working class women of color and both city and countryside activists that challenged the state’s prison system.
Their primary method of resisting was hanging flyers in public spaces around jails, prisons, and police stations to advocate their purpose. Groups of women led workshops, meetings, and talked at schools, universities, churches and clubs. They drew hundreds of mothers who wanted to fight on behalf of their children. They represented a public conscience, Gilmore claims, “they inspired hope.” The group acted as a support system for both the helpless mothers and the children. Mothers ROC even created solidarity with third-world activist mothers through the identity of motherhood, turning it into a larger movement. Gilmore states, “Mothers ROC’s mission was to be seen, heard, and felt in the interest of justice” (Gilmore 182.) Mothers ROC and other groups of women worked ambitiously to make this injustice recognized amongst the public. The grief that every woman felt in Mothers ROC formed a close bond between mothers that led them to work in harmony toward their goal. Gilmore ends the book with a short chapter titled, “What Is to Be Done?” where she states:
The bottom line is this: if the twentieth century was the age of genocide on a planetary scale, then in order to avoid repeating history, we ought to prioritize coming to grips with dehumanization.
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