Wednesday, May 9, 2007

California's Prisons and its Communities

At the vortex of Governor Schwarzenegger's tortured efforts to extricate the state from an ever deepening human rights and legal crisis of its prisons, while not appearing to jeopardize the security of California's in any imaginable degree, is the relationship between prisons and communities in California. In the decades during which California leaders have been governing through crime, prisons have been offered time and again as the major way the state acts to help communities. In terms repeatedly made explicit, these leaders have portrayed the prison as a channel through which troubled and troubling members of the community go, leaving a community less threatened by their presence. This geographic and demographic logic has led the state to build and fill a constellation of new prisons, most of them situated in economically depressed and less populous areas of the state (see Ruth Gilmore's analysis of this spatial logic in her new book, Golden Gulags). At the same time the prisoners that emerge to return to California communities (now called parolees and by law the very same communities from which they came) are constantly perceived as a new threat to those communities. Increasing sentences and resisting every path of release has become the path of least resistance to this contradiction. No Governor Schwarzenegger seeks to cut through this knot by building new community based "reentry" prisons to which prisoners approaching their release date, and parolees returned for violations of parole would be sent. The idea behind these centers is attractive; provide the reassurance of a locked facility, but the economic and social benefits of close contact with families and jobs. But here the spatial logic of governing through crime in California comes home. Those communities, mostly large urban areas in which the economically disadvantaged are often spatially proximate to the better off, are likely to strongly resist the construction of prisons inside their boundaries.

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