CI: The PIC – Old School/New School 2

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

The PIC – Old School/New School 2
by nancy a heitzeg

Last week CI took a close look at the PIC Old School in that Incarceration Capital of the World: Louisiana. It is easy to find evidence there of the largely uninterrupted connection between plantation slavery, convict lease/prison farms ( aka slavery by another name) and the continued practices of racialized mass incarceration for profit. In many respects, it is the embodiment of that 13th Amendment loophole: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Slavery unwilling to die. Writ Large.

Today, we examine that the epicenter of the contemporary PIC – California, which until recently imprisoned in sheers numbers more than any state. More prisoners than Louisiana, than Florida, probably still more than Texas even if we count those transferred to county jails — nearly a quarter million locked away. Numbers so excessive they made the SCOTUS blink and declare that the extreme over-crowding must be reduced by as many as 30,000 inmates. This over-crowding is especially egregious at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla, the world’s largest prison for women, which is currently housing nearly double capacity. And although California has not conducted an execution in 7 years, it still retains – by far – the largest death row in the nation.

It is California – the Golden Gulag –  that brings us the expansion of the modern pic – driven by a draconian three strikes law ( just recently revised), the proliferation of gang legislation, correctional spending that far outstrips educational investments, excessive use of solitary confinement and SuperMax conditions,  and a powerful police officer and prison guard union that stands in the way of any meaningful efforts to reduce mass incarceration.

While the racism is less overt and the system newer in design, the connections are inescapable and the inhumane results much the same.  It is impossible to fully address the complexity of California’s penal code and massive correctional apparatus here, so what follows is a brief overview of the genesis and results of a prison-building and filling project that is “”biggest in the history of the world”. Certainly, as always, it is based on the latest data and analysis, but also on a first-hand glimpse of the state of incarceration and resistance in Northern California.


New School: The Golden Gulag*

The ultimate expression of law is not order, it’s prison.
George Jackson, “Blood in My Eye”

Unlike Louisiana which never paused their reliance on captive neo-slave labor, the State of California has only recently become  a national leader in mass imprisonment. California’s prison population mushroomed from under 20,000 to well over 170,000 — one of the most rapid penal expansions in history. This increase was not due to increased crime rates – always the popular, yet incorrect default argument – crimes rate by this point were already falling. So why?


“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? (See Enlarged Map) 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?”

The Rise of Prison Industrial Complex

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California offers the most comprehensive 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, those deemed “surplus labor”; what industries and economic growth systems government is prepared to subsidize; in tax structures; and relationships between different races and classes over the decades.

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.

Public policy shifts, dictated by by both economic factors and political mood, resulted in expansion of criminal law – some 1,200 new criminal justice-related laws in the decades during the penal expansion – the first and most restrictive three strikes law, the proliferation of gang legislation, a state-sponsored boom in prison building and new jobs in depressed agricultural regions,  correctional spending that far outstripped educational investments, the growing influence of private correctional profit interests, and the escalating political power of the state’s prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), which plays a significant role in advocating pro-incarceration policies and opposing pro-rehabilitative policies in California.

And yes soon, a correctional population that soon was the largest in the nation, peaking at 168,000 total in state prison and another 80, 000+ in county jails. An annual budget of close to $9 billion.

A transformation that took less than 30 years.

Unconstitutional Conditions

The result is a mess. As Gilmore notes, “Prisons wear out places by wearing out people, irrespective of whether they have done time.”

The California prison explosion is costly and constitutionally frayed. Prisoner lawsuits on a variety of issues –the loss of property during a cell search, about getting appropriate medical treatment, or about excessive force in an altercation, religious rights, and civil rights complaints re the conditions of confinement – have swamped the prison -heavy Eastern District, resulting in the highest caseload in the nation at roughly 50,000 prisoner petitions per year.

That long-shot recourse is but one of few the inmates have. As we walked through our tour of the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla, our guide made various references to the names of legal cases along the way that had resulted in new practices – new “heart healthy” dietary guidelines ( i was in the prison kitchen and offered “lunch”,  so maybe No), a new building for “health care”, more.

“Nothing changes here without a lawsuit”,  he matter-of-factually declared.


Nearly two years ago the Supreme Court ruled that the California system was so over-crowded that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The case, Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor of California, et al., Appellants v. Marciano Plata et al., centered on shortage of health care and the resultant de facto denial of mental and physical treatment. An average of one inmate per week died as a result of malpractice or neglect. (Inadequate health care is too large a topic to fully cover in this diary – please see Prison Health Care as Punishment for an overview and Shumate v. Wilson for a specific look at health care issues for women in California’s prisons).

The Court affirmed a federal decree requiring state officials to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which is 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity. (At the peak of over-crowding, the system was at 200% capacity, even with some 9000 prisoners housed out of state. Inmates were housed in bunks in gyms, hallways and any extra nook and cranny). California is required to reduce the population by 30,oo0 inmate by July of 2013.

Screen Shot 2011-12-28 at 6_38_02 AM

While inmates are no longer sleeping in “dirty beds” ( the perfect triple-meaning slang term), the crisis is hardly over.  (Governor Jerry Brown claims it is as he doubles-down on efforts to remove federal oversight, decrying it as “nit-picking”. “We can’t pour more and more dollars down the rathole of incarceration.”)

 California still needs to reduce the state prison population by another 10,000 and many questions remain as to over-crowding at the county level and at the women’s facilities. Their solution, Assembly Bill 109 (AB109) also referred to as “prison re-alignment’, thus far seems to be one of those “Shell Games” CI warned of just a few weeks ago.

From the Public Policy Institute of California, “Corrections Realignment: One Year Later”:

In 2011, California changed the way it manages low-level felons convicted of “nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual” offenses. It redirected 30,000 recently convicted offenders who would have gone to state prison to county jail, shifted the after-prison supervision of about 50,000 offenders from state parole agents to county probation departments, and revised its procedures dealing with sentencing, good-time credits, and parole…

As might be expected, county jails are feeling the effects of realignment, which has transferred some 30,000 offenders to county supervision. Although the jail system in California has a rated capacity of about 76,000 and an average offender population of 71,060, many individual jails are already crowded (Loftstrom and Kramer 2012).

The over-crowding, then, is largely being shifted from the state to county level, from state prisons to county jails. Counties have a variety of options for dealing with these additional inmates, including referrals to the new privatized profit-driven community correctional complex. The tendency, however, has been continued incarceration rather than release.  17 counties are already under separate court-orders to reduce populations and the recent pressures have lead to many counties increasing jail space.

Since jails are meant for short-term detention, their amenities, as it were, are even fewer than those offered in prisons such as work programs or outside yard space. So the state-wide problems may simply be replicated or exacerbated at the county level. As perhaps a harbinger of more trouble to come, a legal suit alleging that Fresno’s jail is providing unconstitutionally inadequate health care was filed in December 2011.

Largely forgotten in this shuffle are the state’s nearly 6500 female inmates. The state’s response here is the shuffling of female inmates into other already over-crowded state institutions. The recent Chowchilla Freedom Rally was organized to address this concerns. Organizers , including the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, noted this:

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is converting Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) into a men’s prison in response to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding. Instead of releasing people and closing VSPW, they are squeezing over 1,000 women and transgender people into the two remaining women’s prisons. The population of the other women’s prison in Chowchilla, Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) is dangerously close to 4,000 even though its maximum capacity is 2,000. The conversion has aggravated overcrowding, created dangerous conditions, and health care is already getting much worse.

Having had a brief glimpse at housing conditions at CCWF, I can attest to the horrific conditions of over-crowding. 8 women to a small cell designed for 4! In one unit – half of which was designed as administrative segregation for so-called  “crazy ” women we were to ignore – two women were bunked in a room the size of  a small closet. At a benefit held prior to the Chowchilla Freedom Rally ( see this link for an array of protest photos), two recently released inmates spoke of how the cramped conditions contributed to the spread of disease, created additional challenges for those inmates with mental health issues and created new stresses and phobias for those without mental health concerns prior to arrival.

Honestly, students and I reflected and agreed that conditions we just observed at the now defunct Alcatraz — now a National Park but once the end of the line pre-SuperMax Federal prison — seemed to be preferable to the inhumane housing conditions that these women were now expected to endure.

It was also our sad but true observation that even in the throw away world of prisoners, women, even there, get the short shirt. Much gratitude to those, such as Victoria Law who always seeks to bring their stories at the fore.

We will not forget them.

Excessive Use of Solitary Confinement

As Solitary Watch rightly observes, we are  ” a nation on lockdown”; at least 80,000 prisoners are in some form of isolated confinement,1 including some 25,000 in SuperMax prisons. And no where, are there more inmates in “ad seg”, the “SHU” or solitary than in California; nearly 4000 inmates locked in small cells 22-23 hours per day , often for years, sometimes for decades.

Here too , California was a national “leader” in the long term and excessive use of solitary, a practice solidified with the construction of Pelican Bay in 1989. The dilemmas associated with protracted isolation in the California system  have been addressed consistently at CI — see here, here and here for a start. See also Amnesty International’s report — The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Secure Housing Units.

The Pelican Bay Hunger Strike of 2011 fully revealed the pitfalls of this practice in California  – the state with the highest number of isolated prisoners. At Pelican Bay alone,, Over 500 people have been confined in the SHU for over a decade, over 200 for more than 15 years and 78 for over 20 years. Solitary confinement has become an long term indeterminate sentence there, via the process of “gang-validation”. In Kafkaesque fashion, inmates are labeled as “gang members” via the most minimal of evidence or more common still, by “snitch” identification. The only way that a person can be released from the SHU is to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners. The drill has come to be known as “snitch, parole or die”.

Still more than 1 year later, inmates at that infamous Supermax have gotten little relief and no satisfaction regarding their Five Core Demands
5 demands

  • Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
  • Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
  • Comply with the recommendations of the 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
  • Provide adequate food;
  • Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

Conditions of solitary confinement remain so egregious there that inmates most recently appealed to the United Nations for relief. In addition, The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of those who have spent between ten and 28 years in Pelican Bay’s SHU, including the hunger strikers. The suit, Ruiz v. Brown, names ten plaintiffs and seeks to establish two classes of prisoners entitled to relief. The larger class consists of all prisoners serving indefinite SHU terms based on gang validation. The suit argues that their rights to due process are violated.

The response of the State of California has been less than encouraging here. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not directly responded to the Five Core Demands, but instead has effectively widened the net for validation by replacing the language of “gang” with ” security threat”. Directly related to this is the movement to expand the use of solitary as a means for insuring correctional officers jobs in the face of realignment and the SCOTUS order to decrease populations. One of the most misunderstood aspect of solitary involves its high costs due to the demand for a longer inmate to guard ratio.

As a personal observation – in part from long study of the dynamics of prisons, in part from subtle commentary gathered on the latest “tour” – it seems that prison officials in California as elsewhere seem determined to turn every prisoner victory into some sort of ultimate defeat.

More hunger strikes may be forthcoming.

Stay tuned.

Racial Over-representation and Segregation

As everywhere, Blacks, Latino/as and other communities of color are over-represented in California prisons and jails. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate 6.5 times greater than whites and Latino/as at nearly 2 times the rate of whites. This is higher than the national rate of racial disparity. Collectively, non-whites comprise more than 2/3′s of the state’s prison population.

Further, this is no understatement: “The California Prison system is notorious for its highly racialized environment.” This is an environment, which some contend, is fostered by prison constructs of race, the promotion of racial divisions and even “race riots” by prison staff, and the conflation of “race” with “gang”.

It is also a racialized environment that has – like so much in the California prison system – been subject to state and federal litigation.

Until recently, California segregated inmates by race. One of the fascinating points on the Alcatraz audio tour was a mention of the explicit segregation of Black inmates that continued until the institution closed in 1963. California prisons formerly segregated inmates by race during their first 60 days in a prison, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared that practice unconstitutionally dubious in Johnson v. California (2005).

Despite the ruling, inmate housing remains racially segregated at Pelican Bay and other maximum-security prisons. “Gang” has become a proxy for “race”, as institutions still attempt to maintain the divisiveness that contributes to social control. In Building a New Identity: Race, Gangs, and Violence in California Prisons, David Noll observes:

From the beginning, the California prison system pushes inmates into joining prison gangs. Upon arrival in a reception center, inmates are indoctrinated to the concept that they need the protection of their “peoples” and that some group, for example, the Fresno Bulldogs, is out to get them. At each prison, correctional officers ask inmates what their “affiliation” is and communicate that being unaffiliated is not acceptable. It is in the interest of the correctional officers to promote this idea because the message for inmates is “we aren’t your problem, they are.” The idea that gangs protect inmates from race-driven violence is then reinforced by other inmates. This concept is so prevalent that racial identity, ethnicity, and even geographic location are conflated with gang affiliation in prisons, creating confusion as to the source of the issue.

Consider how convenient this is for prison officials in light of the “gang validation” process for assigning inmates to solitary confinement. Prisoners are encouraged to identify with “gangs” as a proxy for race upon arrival and then that same identification is later used to further segregate them from the general population via the SHU.

Classic Catch 22.

Further “gang” affiliation – read race – has become the source of on-going punishment as noted in a recent California Court of Appeal has just issued a decision in re Jose Morales on race-based punishments at Pelican Bay. California Prison Watch on the decision:

Pelican Bay racially segregates prisoners and, during extended periods of perceived threatened violence, denies family visits, work assignments, yard exercise, religious services and other privileges to prisoners of one race while granting those same privileges to prisoners of other races. This habeas proceeding was brought by a Hispanic prisoner alleging that the prison’s policy of disparate treatment based on race and ethnicity denies him equal protection of the laws.

This particular proceeding was tied to a 2008 incident between Hispanic inmates, which led to a segregation of all Hispanic inmates’ access to programs, which apparently remained in effect for almost three years. The result of the effective lockdown on Hispanic inmates was that only inmates classified racially as “other”, meaning, mostly Asian inmates, had to work double shifts in prison. Other inmates were denied visitation, exercise, religious services, and other privileges. In short, no one won….

One of the notable things about the decision is the judges’ sensitivity to the chicken-and-egg nature of race-based classification. While some administrative policies are a result of gang-related racial hostilities, the classification in itself threatens not only “to stigmatize individuals by reason of their membership in a racial group” but also, importantly, “to incite racial hostility.”

Another notable thing is the court’s attentiveness to nuance. While many inmates are affiliated with a gang based on their race, not all inmates are affiliated with a gang, and to assume otherwise is to discriminate.

As if this is not enough, recent research also suggests that Black and Latino prisoners are more likely than whites to be housed in private facilities that offer fewer “programs that help prisoners: psychological interventions, drug and alcohol counseling, coursework towards high school or college diplomas, job training, etc.”

New research shows that, in addition to being disproportionately incarcerated, racial minorities and immigrants are disproportionately housed in private prisons. Looking at three states with some of the largest prison populations — California, Texas, and Arizona – graduate student Christopher Petrella reports that racial minorities are over-represented in private prisons by an additional 12%. This means that, insofar as U.S. state governments are making an effort to rehabilitation the prison population, those efforts are disproportionately aimed at white inmates…This translates into a public disinvestment in the lives of minorities and their communities.

color of corporate corrections

What else is there to say here?

Resistance: The Prison Abolition Movement

Just as California is the “inventor” of the modern pic, so too is it the birthplace of the Prison Abolition Movement. Rooted in the spirit of the Soledad Brothers, building on the legacy of the Black Panther Party and articulated by the miracle that is Angela Davis.

You can can feel it still on the streets of Oakland – an undercurrent that runs wide and deep. A movement that spills 0ut state-wide, nation-wide asking always the essential question:

Are Prisons Obsolete?

And always answering with a resounding Yes!

The question seems so radical, but given the past, given the present, it is the question to begin – not end- any conversation about policing and prisons.

My students, many of whom who have not deeply considered the prison before, are always intrigued by the question. And wherever they eventually end up on the spectrum of positions regarding the pic, they are critically equipped with a powerful  lens by having explored the question of transformative community alternatives to policing and prisons.

While in the Bay Area, we had the opportunity to connect with so many wonderful activists whose work is high-lighted below. Eternal Gratitude to all for the work done everyday.

Those mentioned are but a few of so many grassroots groups who resist the Golden Gulag at every step of the way.

More Power to them – And so it shall be.

In the words of Billy X Jennings, “Nobody is above the Power of the People.”


Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe. We believe that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and freedom are what really make our communities secure. As such, our work is part of global struggles against inequality and powerlessness. The success of the movement requires that it reflect communities most affected by the PIC. Because we seek to abolish the PIC, we cannot support any work that extends its life or scope.


Critical Resistance’s vision is the creation of genuinely healthy, stable communities that respond to harm without relying on imprisonment and punishment. We call our vision abolition, drawing, in part from the legacy of the abolition of slavery in the 1800′s. As PIC abolitionists we understand that the prison industrial complex is not a broken system to be fixed.  The system, rather, works precisely as it is designed to—to contain, control, and kill those people representing the greatest threats to state power. Our goal is not to improve the system even further, but to shrink the system into non-existence. We work to build healthy, self-determined communities and promote alternatives to the current system.

Critical Resistance (CR) is building a member-led and member-run grassroots movement to challenge the use of punishment to “cure” complicated social problems. We know that more policing and imprisonment will not make us safer. Instead, we know that things like food, housing, and freedom are what create healthy, stable neighborhoods and communities. We work to prevent people from being arrested or locked up in prison. In all our work, we organize to build power and to stop the devastation that the reliance on imprisonment and policing has brought to ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The It’s About Time Committee is committed to preserving and promoting the legacy of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its programs of community survival pending social change. We will commemorate the historic legacies of the BPP as well as the many sacrifices and constructive contributions that all of us made while serving the people body and soul.

We have the responsibility to place our own experiences into historical context; otherwise the legacy of the Black Panther Party will be ignored, dismissed and distorted by today’s commentators and tomorrow’s historians.

We will maintain a network of Black Panther Party alumni and supporters for the purpose of providing educational information to community groups or the public at large regarding issues of social justice. This will include publishing a newsletter and maintaining a speakers’ bureau. We also organize local community events and support other community organizations who promote social justice issues. We provide mentoring for urban youth groups to encourage positive community activity and voluntarism.

We commemorate the sacrifices of those who fell in body and spirit to the prevailing internal and external forces of those times. We must continue to bring attention to the plight of the many political prisoners and exiles who were victims of the government repression which contributed to the Party’s demise.

We need to reclaim our history and dispel the many myths about the Party.

Angola 3 News is an official project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Along with providing the latest news about the Angola 3, we are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more. ( See Part 1 of The Black Panther Party’s Living Legacy –Touring Oakland and Berkeley with Billy X Jennings)
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) is a coalition* based in the Bay Area made up of grassroots organizations & community members committed to amplifying the voices of and supporting the prisoners at Pelican Bay & other CA prisons while on hunger strike.

*Coalition partners include: Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, California Prison Focus, Prison Activist Resource Center, Critical Resistance, Kersplebedeb, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, American Friends Service Committee, BarNone Arcata and a number of individuals throughout the United States and Canada.


CCWP is a grassroots social justice organization, with members inside and outside prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC). We see the struggle for racial and gender justice as central to dismantling the PIC and we prioritize the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement. Work includes:  The Fire Inside , Free Battered Women,Companeras and Prison Visits .


(* Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Gilmore, University of California Press, 2007)



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