So many great books have come out in the 21st century examining the genesis of mass incarceration; we’ve discussed many of them here. While many of these books look at trends nationwide, or even in the industrialized West, it is no coincidence that they tend to focus on California. Not only does California have the largest prison population (in absolute numbers; we are not leading the gloomy per-capita parade), but it has pioneered many of the punitive legislation and policies later adopted by other states.

Which is partly why Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag provides a necessary local context to much of the conversation. Gilmore, a geographer, focuses on somewhat less analyzed aspects of mass incarceration in the Golden State: The economic and geographic conditions that have yielded massive prison construction.

After providing a dense and detailed introduction to the California political economy, Gilmore moves on to provide the central thesis of the book: California’s prison boom is a “prison fix” to a problem of fourfold surplus: Capital, land, labor, and state capacity. Her discussion of the mechanism behind prison finance, done through bonds to avoid accountability to taxpayers, shows how supply and demand has worked to create a prison boom that empowered the California Department of Corrections and rendered its construction activities immune to public critique.

1982 is a key year for Gilmore’s narrative. That year, the legislature approved facilities in Riverside, LA, and San Diego, as well as $495,000,000 in general obligation bonds to build new prisons, with the express goal to enhance public safety. In the same year, the legislature also reorganized CDC in a way that exempted its bidding and budgeting practices from the competitive process and instead allowed to assign work to outside consultants, to guarantee that construction occur quickly.

While prisons were initially funded by general obligation bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the state, underwriters and legislators had to deal with “politically contradictory limit to taxpayers’ willingness to use their own money to defend against their own fears”. Their solution was to use lease revenue bonds, usually issued by the Public Works Board for college and university facilities, as well as for veterans and farmers. LRBs carried more risk, as they were only backed by a moral obligation rather than a fiscally binding one, but the expense was offset by the fact that LRBs did not have to be placed before the voters in general elections, and could therefore be quickly organized and issued so prisons could be built close to the time they were bid on, to avoid cost hikes. As a result, in less than a decade, the state debt for prison construction expanded from $763 million to $4.9 billion, an increase from 3.8% to 16.6% of total state debt.

In the next section, Gilmore examines the economic, demographic and geographic push for partnerships between CDC and various central valley towns who wanted to revitalize their economy through the labor and land improvement that would result. As her case study, she looks at Corcoran, an agrarian town with a diverse population suffering a serious economic downturn, in part because of ten years of weather calamities. Most Corcoran residents were hopeful that a prison would put their real property to work and generate employment; their visit to Susanville impressed them with the potential of a prison to revitalized the city. Despite vocal objection, the prison was built, but the town’s hopes were crushed. Employment and opportunities for locals did not improve, confirming general research that shows that, over time, prison towns compare unfavorably with depressed rural places that do not acquire prisons.

The last part of Gilmore’s book looks at anti-prison activism originated by mothers. While it is an interesting account, it delves too much into the personal and would be better as a piece on its own, as it is rather disjointed from the grand narratives and analysis that precedes it.

I’m not sure I am entirely on board with Gilmore’s interpretation of Marxist surplus theory, and I think it does not fare well in providing a full explanation of mass incarceration. But as a piece of the puzzle, the book offers an informative and important explanation of prison construction, one which is sorely needed as the mechanics of prison finance are cleverly hidden from state voters and taxpayers. Her tale of Corcoran is told from the perspective of someone who is not only well informed, but who cares deeply about these towns and their crushed hopes. It is certainly helpful to me as I try to understand and explain what happened after 2007 (when the book was published) and how the financial crisis impacted these developments.

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