The declining U.S. economy has led many to wake up to the fact that prisons are increasingly warehouses for “unwanted people” in the U.S. Whether they are people of color, immigrants (usually also people of color), poor women, trans, subsistence level or homeless youth, mentally ill, differently-abled, etc. the prison system is ready to take them on the most minor infraction. Once there, the system is designed to keep them through a combination of degradation and punishment that includes added time. The assumption that people in prison belong in prison has served to shield most N. Americans to the realities of mothers separated from nursing babies for nothing more than crossing a border or Latino youth clocking time because they were hanging out on the wrong street corner together or trans women praying they make it to prison instead of the infirmary because of “unexplained injuries” while in custody. While more information has come out about U.S. prisons becoming the largest state funded mental health facilities in some state’s, very few discussions outside of activist circles have centered on the interconnectedness of marginalization (“unwanted people”), incarceration, and income and job generation. Prisons are becoming one of the largest employers across the nation, providing jobs in food service, medicine, administration, sanitation, as well as guards and counselors. They also stimulate local economy because all of these new workers have money to spend at the local diner, coffee shop, clothing store, etc.Yet, as some small towns have argued, this stimulus restructures the entire economy toward the prison in ways that stunt alternative economic growth and econ sustaining diversification. Put another way, if the prison closes towns that were struggling before it opened would become ghost towns. So the prison must stay open. And to keep the prison open, there have to be criminals …
For those familiar with the prison-industrial-complex, or already working on the issue, this is not new information. Yet new ads inundate the local television with calls to join the ranks of border patrol (immigrant prison guards) and law enforcement careers (non-immigrant prisons) and my own uni has seen a massive increase in enrollment in the prison related degrees. It’s big business. Big business that is shielded by the national level discourses of citizenship and criminality.
While scandals about youth prisons are nothing new, the California prison system has one of the longest incarceration rates for youth offenders in the nation. Most of those offenders are originally arrested on misdemeanors, though there is a large percentage involved in hard core or gateway crimes. The issue is not whether or not incarcerated youth are “perfect victims”, ie completely innocent, but how they move from every day youth, to criminalized populations upon whom the prison-industrial-complex depends to generate money and jobs at the expense of lives.
Many youth in California prisons are people of color, second or third generation immigrant youth, and/or poor. 84% of youth in California prisons were people of color in 2007; while some will take this as proof people of color are more prone to criminality than white people, more than enough studies of race and racism in the legal system have proven that this overrepresenation has more to do with racism and classism than anything else. 1/3 of the youth serving time in CA prisons are there because of “time adds”. This means they have already served their original sentence and are serving time for behavioral issues ranging from talking back to guards to being involved in a fight (the application of the law has made little distinction between those who were targeted in those fights and/or defending themselves against bullying and harassment and those who intentionally caused a fight). The system is similar to that applied to people with mental health issues in prison who are often picked up on misdemeanors or petty crime and then warehoused for years based on behaviors related to their MH issues (talking back, ignoring lights out, fighting, etc.)
According to Books not Bars:
In the United States, 90,000 youth find themselves in juvenile detention centers on any given night and 2.2 million youth are arrested each year. In California, the state youth prison systems cost $216,000 per child per year while a mere $8,000 per child are allocated to Oakland public schools.
Once again, needed resources are funneled away from programs and services that help people succeed and deliberately moved into ones that require them to fail.
5 years of organizing in California against the inhumane treatment of incarcerated youth, including court cases finding the prison system or its employees guilty of beating, raping, or harassing youth prisoners, some times with the goal of goading them into time add violations, has had some positive effect on the system. According to Truthout, the number of youth arrested in 2009 was 1500 down from 5000, 5 years earlier. Ella Baker Center introduced a bill, AB 999, in CA that would eliminate time adds all together, replacing them with incentive programs that provide time reduction or other privileges to youth who take anger management, participate in counseling or work retraining programs, or otherwise show good behavior during their sentence. The bill has not yet passed but you can help by sending a letter to the California Legislature letting them know that intentionally incarcerating youth for years beyond their original sentence is not only inhumane it often causes irreparable damage to their education, self-esteem, and life choices.
The fight does not end with California’s youth however. As I’ve been trying to show, the problem is the system itself. The same tactics used to criminalize, round up, and retain youth in the prison system is similar to that of any other marginalized population. The correlations become all the more apparent when we map how policies about criminalizing normal behavior, like hanging out, and adding time to sentences is used on differently targeted populations, ie how these policies are used against Latin@s and immigrants in the Southwest, youth in California, black men in Chicago, and mental health patients in the U.S. Drawing connections between the groups least wanted, or in some cases least employed, in any given region and their treatment in prison to disparate least wanted populations in other regions shows a clear map of state sanctioned discrimination, violence, and economic gain on the backs of not only criminalized populations but the cities and towns that house the prisons. The problem is often worse for queer populations criminalized for their gender or sexual “transgressions” as well as the ways their identities often intersect other targeted populations. While Californians have been working to change this, Gov Schwarznegger has vetoed the the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Prisoner Safety Act and its predecessor, leaving queer people, particular trans women, extremely vulnerable to violence and murder in the prison system. According to the documentary Cruel and Unusual, trans people are incarcerated at 3 times the rate of cis people and many of them begin their time in prison as youth picked up for loitering, homelessness, or petty crime.
When we think intersectionally it is impossible to ignore how the prison system in the U.S. upholds the idea of who has a right to be considered N. American and who is part of Palin’s “other [N.] America”, the one we lock up and throw away.
- LGBT Youth Behind Bars: Isolated, Abused, Neglected (criminaljustice.change.org)
- Study Puts a $ on ‘Collateral Costs’ of Incarceration (criminaljustice.change.org)
- Letter: Treatment, Not Prison (nytimes.com)