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California--the prison state

Review by Dana Blanchard | March 16, 2007 | Page 13

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007, 412 pages, $19.95.

THE LAST chapter of Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag begins with the words "The patient reader has traveled a long way in a short book."

This line could not be truer. Gilmore not only covers the history of economic crisis and the rise of prison construction to counteract the slumping agricultural economy but also attempts to tackle how family members can organize to fight the system.

It's a daunting task to cover such a large amount material and her book shows a tremendous research and information, but it also seems to have taken on too much. The beginning of Golden Gulag covers the rise and fall of agribusiness in California, the monopolization of agricultural firms in the Central Valley and how this monopolization led to an excess of cropland and a need to control water rights in a changing economy beginning in the 1970s.

Examining the government's use of municipal monies to prop up big agribusiness. Gilmore shows how the partnership between the state and large landowners was the basis for prison construction in the 1980s.

Through the rise in prison construction and the increase in incarceration rates, the state criminalized a generation of poor people in a failing economy, generated new construction and funneled money from the state coffers into the private sector.

The state essentially set out to restructure itself after the economic crisis of 1973-1975 by starting to use municipal bond money to build new prisons on land that was no longer turning a profit in agriculture.

This boom in prison construction went hand in hand with a need to fill those prisons with the victims of urban economic restructuring who found themselves without decent manufacturing jobs and no way to advance themselves in growing urban wastelands.

Gilmore spends part of her book looking at how California laws were used to lock up large numbers of young people who turned to gang activity and drugs and who were locked up for increasingly long periods for nonviolent offenses under new draconian penal codes like "three strikes" and other mandatory sentencing laws.

This criminalization of nonviolent offenders was propped up by an aggressive media campaign to keep the public on board with the agenda of both state Republicans and Democrats who used tough-on-crime platforms to make massive cuts in health care and education in favor of more funding for new prisons.

Gilmore gives ample evidence of how disastrous the state incarceration agenda has been for working-class and poor people in California and in particular how it has destroyed urban communities of color. She uses the example of the prison town of Corcoran to illustrate how new prisons have not brought the economic prosperity that was promised. Instead, they've further lined the pockets of the rich landowners and local politicians in Corcoran and helped widen the gap between rich and poor across the state.

Where Gilmore could have spent more time is on what we as activists in California can do about this massive problem of incarceration, and the use of crime to channel money out of social spending and into prisons. The book goes into a lot of detail about a particular group of activists called Mothers Reclaiming Our Children.

MothersROC is amazing in that it is made up of mothers and other family members of the victims of California's race to incarcerate. What Gilmore doesn't do enough of is show how the actions of MothersROC are going to seriously take on the state. As an activist in California, I would like to look at how we can link up with other groups, like the labor movement, to really challenge the political and economic agenda of our state government.

Overall, this book is a great manual for how we got to a point where young people of color in many communities are more likely to end up in prison than graduating college. But it's only the beginning of the discussion of how we can organize and fight for a different kind of state with a different set of priorities.

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