The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement

by Ruth Wilson Gilmore*

Gilmore imageAfter declining for three consecutive years, the US prison and jail population increased in 2013. The widely declared victory over mass incarceration was premature at best. Below I raise four areas of particular concern about the state of the anti-prison movement.

(1) A tendency to cozy up to the right wing, as though a superficial overlap in viewpoint meant a unified structural analysis for action.

Nearly 40 years ago, Tony Platt and Paul Takagi (1977) identified as “new realists” the law-and-order intellectuals who purveyed across all media and disciplines the necessity of being hard on the (especially Black) working class. Today’s new “new realists”—the correct name for the “emerging bipartisan consensus”—exude the same stench. However differently calibrated, the mainstream merger depends on shoddy analysis and historical amnesia—most notably the fact that bipartisan consensus built the prison-industrial complex (PIC). The PIC isn’t just the barred building, but the many ways in which un-freedom is enforced and continues to proliferate throughout urban and rural communities: injunction zones and intensive policing, felony jackets and outstanding warrants, as well as school expulsions and job exclusions. Racial justice and economic democracy demand different paths from the one the new “new realists” blazed. Their top-down technocratic tinkering with the system renovates and aggrandizes it for the next generation.

The left-liberal side of the bipartisan consensus co-opts vocabulary and rhetorical flourishes developed for different purposes by organizations engaged in bottom-up, antiracist struggle. Slogans such as “education, not incarceration” willfully obscure the vital distinctions between the new “new realists” and the grassroots organizations whose work they distort. Unfortunately, many who point out the cynical appropriation of tactical principles or highlight underlying strategic differences find themselves accused of obstructionism or worse.

Even before the eponymous book appeared, grassroots organizations knew that “the revolution will not be funded” (Incite 2007). That said, organizations rightly decided to take available money and run in order to popularize constructively radical remedies for fundamental social problems. Not surprisingly, the very few sources that once funded innovative work have abandoned it and they now wrap system-reinforcing work in phrases lifted from the thought and creativity of left and abolition grassroots struggle. Indeed, foundations cut loose the very organizations that came together in the 1998 Critical Resistance conference and consolidated the contemporary anti-prison movement. As a consequence, understanding and energy have taken a detour into reform for a few, while there is no change for the many.

Why the withdrawal of resources? From the perspective of the deep-pocket new “new realists,” the organizations that built the movement over the past two decades are profoundly unrealistic: their politics are too radical, their grassroots constituents too unprofessional or too uneducated or too young or too formerly incarcerated, and their goals are too opposed to the status quo.

What is the status quo? Put simply, capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it. Thus, criminalization and mass incarceration are class war, as Platt and Takagi explained in 1977. Therefore, the struggle against group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death is waged in every milieu—environmental degradation, public-goods withdrawal, attacks on wages and unions, divide-and-conquer tactics among precarious workers, war, etc. Police killings are the most dramatic events in a contemporary landscape thick with preventable, premature deaths.

Although it has become mildly mainstream to decry outrages against poor people of color, the new “new realists” achieve their dominance by defining the problem as narrowly as possible in order to produce solutions that on closer examination will change little.

(2) A tendency to aim substantial rhetorical and organizational resources at the tiny role of private prison firms in the prison-industrial complex, while minimizing the fact that 92 percent of the vast money-sloshing public system is central to how capitalism’s racial inequality works.

The long-standing campaign against private prisons is based on the fictitious claim that revenues raked in from outsourced contracts explain the origin and growth of mass incarceration. In any encounter about mass incarceration, live or on the Internet, print or video, sooner rather than later somebody will insist that to end racism in criminal justice the first step is to challenge the use of private prisons.

Let us look at the numbers. Private prisons hold about 8 percent of the prison population and a barely measurable number (5 percent) of those in jails. Overall, about 5 percent of the people locked up are doing time in private prisons. What kind of future will prison divestment campaigns produce if they pay no attention to the money that flows through and is extracted from the public prisons and jails, where 95 percent of inmates are held? Jurisdiction by jurisdiction, we can see that contracts come and go, without a corresponding change in the number or the demographic identity of people in custody. In addition, many contracts are not even held by private firms, but by rather municipalities to whom custody has been delegated by state corrections departments.

(3) A tendency to pretend that systematic criminalization will rust and crumble if some of those caught in its iron grip are extricated under the aegis of relative innocence.

One of the most troubling moves by the new “new realists” is to insist on foregrounding the relatively innocent: the third-striker in for stealing pizza or people in prison on drug possession convictions. The danger of this approach should be clear: by campaigning for the relatively innocent, advocates reinforce the assumption that others are relatively or absolutely guilty and do not deserve political or policy intervention. For example, most campaigns to decrease sentences for nonviolent convictions simultaneously decrease pressure to revise—indeed often explicitly promise never to change—sentences for serious, violent, or sexual felonies. Such advocacy adds to the legitimation of mass incarceration and ignores how police and district attorneys produce serious or violent felony charges, indictments, and convictions. It helps to obscure the fact that categories such as “serious” or “violent” felonies are not natural or self-evident, and more important, that their use is part of a racial apparatus for determining “dangerousness.”

For example, campaigners for California’s Proposition 47 placed a widely touted “bipartisan” op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, coauthored by Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., in which the authors argued that “California has been overusing incarceration. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.”

Note the use of the word “afraid.” The new “new realists,” with their top-down reforms, are trying to determine who constitutes “we”; worse, they also reinforce a criminal justice system, ideology, and image bank that justified Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony—just as it justified Bernard Goetz’s actions three decades ago. #BlackLivesMatter is an absolute statement, watered down to #sometimes by the opportunistic relativism of the new “new realists.”

(4) A tendency to virulently oppose critique from the Left, as though the work of thinking hard about how and what we do interferes with the work of reform.

Opportunists beguile audiences and divert attention and resources from people and organizations that have been fighting for decades to change the foundations on which mass incarceration has been built: structural racism, structural poverty, and capitalism devouring the planet. And they succeed in part because it has become unhip to subject the decisions, rhetoric, and goals of reform campaigns to any kind of thoughtful scrutiny. At stake is not only how we fight to win, but also how prepared we are for victories. Prepare to win means be ready for the morning after. If, for example, Proposition 47 actually releases savings that can be spent by school districts, who can ensure that the money goes to real educational programs, and not to school cops, school discipline, and school exclusion programs?

Fight to win.

Platt, Tony and Paul Takagi. 1977. “Intellectuals for Law and Order: A Critique of the New ‘Realists.’” Crime and Social Justice 8: 1–16. Reprinted in Social Justice 40(1–2): 192–215.
Incite, eds. 2007. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

* Ruth Wilson Gilmore is Director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a cofounder of many social justice organizations, including California Prison Moratorium Project, Critical Resistance, and the Central California Environmental Justice Network.


3 thoughts on “The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement

  1. Thank you. This is an excellent discussion and the themes resonate with problems facing radical activism (including anti-prison and anti-violence against women movements) in the United Kingdom: notably the dangers of becoming reliant on conservative funding bodies; too much emphasis on prison privatisation; the limitations of focusing exclusively on miscarriages of justice; and disconnection from a radical socialist visions of justice. There are many lessons in this blog for us to share far and wide in the struggle for social justice.

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