If you read no other chapter of this book, read this one. Gilmore starts this off with a very sobering note: "Not once, but twice, the rising power bloc of “tough on crime” and antiurban strategists seized hard-won reforms designed to make the prisoner’s lot less desperate and transformed them into their inverse mirror images. Efforts to make the California Department of Corrections (CDC) take rehabilitation seriously wiped rehabilitation from the books. Efforts to free prisoners from crumbling prisons led to the construction program that has never ended."
Here's the story. Over the decades from 1910s to to the 1970s, prisoners pressed legislation challenging the cruelty of overcrowding and poor prison conditions generally. But the political culture that prevailed in response to the tumultuous 60s and 70s swung political elites hard to the right. In 1977, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown (yes, the same guy who followed up after Schwarzenegger as governor from 2011 to 2019!) passed the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act which very explicitly dropped the "rehabilitation" pretensions of incarceration from the earlier progressive era, saying instead "the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment."
This hard swing into retributivism produced a peculiar way of responding to previous complaints about overcrowding: want more space? I hear you loud and clear: we need more prison beds. Governor Brown got to work trying to replace San Quentin and Folsom (*checks 2020* guess it didn't workout) with newer facilities, retaining the rehabilitation focus (though the law no longer required it). But in 1982, the California Department of Corrections revised its forecast of how many prison beds would be needed, recommending capacity-expanding facilities rather than the earlier renovation and replacement model.
Also in 1982: Republican George Deukmejian is elected governor - a candidacy supported by the explicit, in uniform campaigning of police officers, in retaliation for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's refusal to further increase the LAPD budget (hey, whatever happened to the LAPD budget?). Even confronted with declining crime rates, he pushed to increase the crime budget. He kept Brown's plan for new prison complexes, but dropped that soft ass "rehabilitation" stuff. But, with declining crime rates, how could they guarantee a steady flow of prisoners to the new prisons?
doesn't matter if lawbreaking is declining if you can change what the laws are
The cooperative California legislature changed the laws to require mandatory prison terms for offenses like "domestic assault" (which we'd now call intimate partner violence, this new book is worth a read) and residential burglary, and commissioned a "State Task Force on Youth Gang Violence" to study “street terrorism”. The California Department of Corrections got to work as well: it increased its planning staff from 3 to 118 and began making super glossy reports about the "crisis" of lack of prison capacity. They recriminalized drugs: the share of drug offenses resulting in referral to CDC tripled from roughly 10% in 1977 to 34.2 percent by 1990. Eventually, in 1994, they tripled down on this strategy, passing among the nation's first and most draconian "three strikes" laws, which mandated "sentence enhancements" in broad ways: including nonviolent prior convictions among eligible “strikes,” setting no age, temporal, or jurisdictional limitations on priors, and letting prosecutors “wobble” charges (turn misdemeanors into strikeable felonies).
Now, all of this would require capital. Nobody was stupid enough to ask it from voters during a tax revolt, but thanks to Frederic Prager and Tom Dumphy, they didn't have to. These guys were the "pivot men between surplus private capital available for investment in the not-for-profit and public sectors and decreasing state-approved outlets where the capital could be put to work." They had cut their teeth putting together "Lease Revenue Bonds" for fancy private universities like Stanford and the University of Southern California, and wormed their way into doing it for the Department of Corrections and the state of California. Lease revenue bonds were a financial tool California adopted in 1946 in response to the post war economy, and were typically used for as loans for public works (e.g. "public college and university facilities and hospital buildings") and paid back with nongovernmental borrower payments or user fees (i.e. a portion of tuition or patient/medical insurance payments). But people don't pay tuition to go to San Quentin University. So how would you use a financial tool like that to fund mass incarceration?
The political strategy was simple: hide the money behind enough layers of bullshit and the only people who will bother to look are the sort of people who wouldn't care. Here's the scheme: California's Public Works Board would issue debt in the the state legislature would appropriate funds for the Department of Corrections, as it does for all agencies. It would use this money to pay "rental payments" to the Public Works Board. Since Lease Revenue Bonds were not explicitly backed by the full faith and credit of the state of California, it doesn't seem like taxpayers are on the hook. But the money paying for the debt is not nongovernmental user fees as universities and hospitals get - it's being appropriated by the California state government. And the California state government gets its money from...uhh...
I was able to locate footage of the public hearing where they defended the scheme
So the politicians have got their power, the colluding state agencies have got their construction money, the capitalists have gotten their investment opportunity. Prison construction is gonna happen. What's left is to figure out where.
The government looks at East Los Angeles, a largely Latino part of the city, figuring that it's relatively higher crime rates make it an easy sell to political elites. But political elites turned out not to be the problem: public housing moms were. The neighborhood mothers (“Las Madres”) in the area’s public housing project and an activist Roman Catholic priest led residents of East LA in a valiant, successful battle against prison construction there. Governor Deukmejian and the owner of the tract that was to be sold to the state were forced to retreat.
Back to the drawing board. This time, they struck pay dirt: the regions of California from "along the state’s southern and southeastern perimeter from Rock Mountain (southern San Diego County) to Blythe Valley (Riverside County). These spots, Gilmore tells us, are the regions run by its agriculture and resource extraction capitalists, who have converted their long history of campaign contributions and local political control into statewide political dominance. They controlled large swaths of land and were more than happy to sell their most useless acres to the state government for the caging of criminalized racial undesirables. And so it goes.