Gilmore spends much of chapter 1 setting the stage: introducing the initial questions that led her to study prisons and the reasons they expanded in California. Along the way, she identifies a few competing explanations, many of which still circulate in national discussion about mass incarceration decades later.
The "dominant explanation": crime went up, so imprisonment also increased in response. The problem: It just isn't true. Gilmore tells us: "by the time the great prison roundups began, crime had started to go down. Mainstream media widely reported the results of statistics annually gathered and published by the FBI the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and state attorneys general. In other words, if the public had indeed demanded crime reduction, the public was already getting what it wanted. California officials could have taken credit for decreasing crime rates without producing more than 140,000 new prison beds (more than a million nationally). Okay, so much for that. What else could explain things?
The drug epidemic: The 80s saw a wave of attention to drug use in the US, most notably the explosion in the sale and use of crack. This explosion, and the associated social problems (addiction, gang violence) were the subject of quite a bit of news reporting, music, and film. Maybe the explosion of incarceration in California was a reaction to the problem itself, the media environment around it, or a combo. Gilmore explains that this explanation actually has something going for it: drug commitments to federal and state prison systems increased by a staggering 975 percent between 1982 and 1999. The problem: Gilmore says that this explanation relies on two assumptions: 'first, that drug use exploded in the 1980s; and second, that the sometimes violent organization of city neighborhoods into gang enclaves was accomplished in order to secure drug markets" [comment: I can't quite see why this explanation relies on these]. But, she counters, overall illegal drug use actually declined over the years, beginning in the late 70s, and the fact that overall prosecution of gang members didn't change after drug laws were amended to allow stiffer sentencing suggests that most gangs were not directly involved in drug trafficking.
"Structural changes in employment opportunities": or, that joblessness drives people into illegal trades (e.g. drug dealing). Again, this has something going for it - from 1982 to the 1990s, the percentage of people imprisoned for property crimes doubled. The problem: Damned lies and statistics! It's also true, Gilmore says, that the rate of property crimes peaked in 1980 and declined from there - suggesting that property crimes simply declined slower than the rates at which other crimes declined. Fucking math, am I right?
What all these have in common is that they are attempts to explain the rise of incarceration in terms of crime - essentially taking society at it's word that prisons are a genuine attempt on the justice system's part to create public safety for everybody. But...but what if that's bullshit?
Another set of explanations (not necessarily mutually exclusive with the first set, Gilmore notes carefully!) starts from a different initial position: thinking that prisons have expanded to facilitate racialized social control.
Before we move on, it's important to note how Gilmore has responded so far: she takes the possible explanations, sees what assumptions they rely on, and checks if they hold up. She does this even though they come from a place that she and others might rightly regard as political naivete. She doesn't stop doing this when taking this other group of explanations on - worth thinking about. Anyways, here we go - there are a lot of these, but here are the highlights.
Racial Cleansing: prisons grow in order to get rid of people of color, especially young Black men. It does so via laws and the practices of police and prosecutors. To their credit, those espousing this theory have decades worth of “racial disparities” in prison expansion, which have substantially affected white people but were "off the charts" for "nearly everybody else". The problem: This might explain why prison expansion could happen at all. But it doesn't explain why prison expansion happened when it did, or took the specific institutional shape that it did.
"New Slavery": prisons grow in order to continue the legal form of slavery allowed by the 13th amendment. The primary drive is corporate profit, and the exploitation of the imprisoned as a labor force. The problem: This doesn't seem to match the basic realities of incarceration in California as Gilmore finds it. First, the point of prisons seems to be incapacitation, not labor productivity - accordingly, much of prisoners' lives are spent "idle". Moreover, most incarcerated people who work do so for public agencies - a far cry from the setup in the plantation economy of the 19th century South. The vast majority of the prison industry is public, so private prison lobbying doesn't explain the general shape of the system either.
Here is an importantly different kind of explanation that Gilmore considers:
The "Reform School": Activists had spent centuries challenging previous regimes of state punishment and public order. Some strains of this activism (e.g. such as benevolent liberals or women fighting domestic and sexual violence) might have seemed progressive at the time but played negative long-term roles: first in normalizing incarceration and then "enabling its perpetually expanding use" [commentary: there's a lesson to be learned here]. On this explanation, the ideas of activists who fought against previous schemes of punishment, it would seem, lived long enough to see themselves become the villain.
This seems close, at the very least, to what Gilmore identifies as her own view:
Prisons as Geographic Solutions to Crises of Political Economy: She tells us: "In my view, prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis. Crisis means instability that can be fixed only through radical measures, which include developing new relationships and new or renovated institutions out of what already exists." That is - when the government runs into deep problems managing the people and interests it's responsible for, it looks around in panic. How can we keep these elites from war on those? How do we keep the dirty poor's hands off our means of production? If you're in a crisis, it's not the easiest time to start a broad new fact-finding and institution building initiative, so you grab whatever you have already and funnel resources into it until things get back under control. In the 1980s, the institution that fit the bill, Gilmore seems to be setting herself up to say, was the prison.
But what was the crisis? Why respond with that institution and not some other? The next chapter is titled "The California Political Economy", so we should expect to get some answers started soon.