After much consternation and many compromises, AB 474 cleared the Appropriations Committee last week and is headed for a floor vote at the California Assembly. The bill regulates the markups at prison canteens, setting prices at a level that “will render each canteen self-supporting,” which effectively means a reduction in canteen markup rates from 65% to 35% for the next 4 years (until 2028). On January 1st 2028, CDCR may ratchet up the markup rate to make canteens “self-supporting.”
As someone interested in both prisons and food, I’ve organized events that classified correctional institutions as food deserts, and rightly so: the cuisine is horrendous. When I visited a Brazilian maximum-security prison a few years ago, I marveled at the organic vegetable garden that surrounded the facility and enriched the decent and nutritious meals served there. The battle to lower canteen prices reminded me of those experiences and raises the question: would we be so worried and upset about canteen markups if the regular meals were decent?
I think the answer is: it’s all about balance. A few years ago, I attended a panel about food and law, in which one of the speakers, a law professor and farmer, expounded on the need to bring native foods back to the communities, claim ownership of native crops, etc. etc. I raised the question of prison canteens, and the fact that some of the most oppressed people on the planet just want some comfort and simple pleasure from their food and might not be aggressively lobbying for heirloom beans. The guy almost chopped my head off and was incredibly rude and dismissive. By pure coincidence, linguist Janet Ainsworth was in the audience, conducting fieldwork on gender norms in academic settings, and wrote up the following (M was the anti-colonial radical-farmer-cum-academic guy, I was the F Qer who was thrice interrupted):
During their panel presentations, three of the four panelists invoked critical ideological positions as underpinning their presentations—both men and one woman. Specifically, one of the two F speakers referenced Critical Race Theory in her presentation, one M panelist referenced critical theory (unspecified), anti-racism, anti-subordination, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-neo-liberalism in his presentation; the other M referenced critical race theory, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, white privilege, and anti-colonialism in his presentation. Conspicuous by its near absence was feminist theory; it was referenced by one of the F speakers once in a response to a Qer. In immediate response one of the M panelists interrupted and responded critically to her suggestion that feminism had a progressive role to play in the topic; she immediately took an apologetic turn, beginning “Yes, yes, I didn’t mean to say…”
This session was marked by interruptions and negative assessments by the male panelists of the speaking turns of the F Qers. One M panelist interrupted F Qers on two occasions, the other M panelist interrupted F Qer speaking turns on six occasions. This more aggressive M panelist began one of his response turns with “I disagree with everything you said,” his response turn took 3 minutes and 52 seconds. (My qualitative assessment of that turn was that it was only very tangentially related to the point that the initial Qer had made.) The same F. Q’er began a follow-up turn, and after eight seconds, the same M. panelist interrupted again, beginning his turn with “No, what you must understand is…” His turn continued for 6 minutes and four seconds. The same F Q’er tried again to take a speaking turn; this time he interrupted her after four seconds. Two of the F. panelists at this point called him by name twice, in what appeared to be an attempt to open a space to speak for the F Q’er. He ignored both F. panelists and took another two minute and 18 second speaking turn. This M panelist interrupted the speaking turn of an additional F Qer later in the session, and he also interrupted the speaking turn of one of the F panelists in her response to a Qer.
Janet astutely remarked about this exchange:
One striking observation is that the male panelists who in their presentations most explicitly and frequently remarked upon their commitment to left-wing and critical theory stood out in the nature of their interactions with female questioners and co-presenters. They interrupted women, negatively assessed female contributions, and seemed unwilling to engage with them, instead taking long speaking turns that were irrelevant to the points earlier made by women speakers. This sample is far too small to suggest that male academics whose presentations prominently reference their commitments to left-wing political theory are more likely to discursively bully women academics. . . However, it does suggest that merely having an academic understanding of power, privilege, and hegemony is not sufficient to counter the tendencies of some male academics to utilize their discursive privileges to silence and discipline women in the academy even today.
But I digress (thanks for indulging me in this little exorcism; who hasn’t interacted with a chauvinist brute at a conference from time to time?) The point is that we must cultivate enough love in our hearts to fight two simultaneous wars. The short-term fix for the prison nutrition crisis is reasonable pricing at the canteen, because people must have access to something comforting and not torturous to eat. The long-term fix must acknowledge that even a 35% markup is an exploitation; canteen foods are goods that currently have no viable alternative. Incarcerated people can’t choose not to eat them, because the default option is inedible. Consequently, for people who want to eat what their palates recognize as food–100% of the prison population–the canteen has a monopoly, and the markup cannot be avoided. If canteens want to make a profit, improving prison food is the way to go; high pricing for luxury items is fair only if they are truly luxury items, not essentials.
The problem of short-term versus long-term goals is a mainstay in social justice struggles. I see it again and again. During COVID-19, as we describe in Chapter 4 of FESTER, activists had to tackle the trade-off between the short-term struggle to make vaccines accessible and increase vaccine acceptance (short-term life-saving measure) and the long-term struggle to save lives from pandemics and other diseases through population reductions (the only viable long-term solution to the prison disease problem.) The challenge was that the vaccines provided courts and politicians respite from the pressing questions of overcrowding, and were universally used as an excuse not to release nearly enough people.
Similarly, I would like to believe that we all want to eradicate rape culture, and that we all know that is a long-term struggle and a worthy one. At the same time, I would really love it if nobody got raped tonight (a short-term struggle.) For that reason, I advocate sensible behavior and caution: self defense classes, a buddy system, and a lot of judgment and circumspection around any situation involving alcohol. Long-term activists might bristle against this advice because it places the responsibility for rape prevention on the putative victims. This, I’m sorry to say, is nonsense; if you are assaulted it is not your fault! it is the fault of your assailant. And at the same time, we do not live in a world devoid of bad people, and if you get drunk or put yourself in vulnerable positions you are taking a risk that bad people will exploit the situation and do bad things to you.
Want another one? When we voted on death penalty abolition, activists argued it would only entrench life without parole, which was “the other death penalty.” Getting rid of the death penalty was a short-term struggle; getting rid of extreme incarceration, including life without parole, would be a long-term struggle. In response, I wrote this:
Unfortunately, the struggle against life without parole cannot begin until we win the struggle against the death penalty, which is within reach. This is, unfortunately, how political reform works: incrementally, with bipartisan support, and supported by a coalition. As I explain in Cheap on Crime, incrementalism produced the considerable reforms that occurred since 2008, and this one will be no exception.
The prison food struggle exhibits the same characteristics, and I think this requires a dialectic approach. I fully support the fight to reduce markups today, and at the same time I support continuing to fight for a world in which the food one is supposedly getting for free somewhat dulls the necessity for markup reductions. The problem, as we see with prison disease prevention and with rape prevention, is that sometimes short-term and long-term struggles can get in each other’s way. In those situations, I recommend thinking about the viability of the long-term goal and operating accordingly.