For three decades, scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has been advocating for prison abolition. She has theorized it and practiced it. For Gilmore, prison abolition means not just the closing of prisons but, rather, the creation of vital support systems that many communities lack.

This week, The New York Times Magazine published a stellar profile of her work, written by Rachel Kushner. It explores our narrow thinking about the nature of criminal justice and what its supposed goals are. To understand more about Gilmore’s thinking on prison reform and abolition, read this excerpt from her book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, published by UC Press in 2007. In it, she provides context for this complex dilemma, and at the same time challenges many cherished assumptions about who benefits and who suffers from the state’s commitment to prison expansion.

The practice of putting people in cages for part or all of their lives is a central feature in the development of secular states, participatory democracy, individual rights, and contemporary notions of freedom. These institutions of modernity, shaped by the rapid growth of cities and industrial production, faced a challenge—most acutely where capitalism flourished unfettered—to produce stability from “the accumulation and useful administration” of people on the move in a “society of strangers” (Foucault 1977: 303). Prisons both depersonalized social control, so that it could be bureaucratically managed across time and space, and satisfied the demands of reformers who largely prevailed against bodily punishment, which nevertheless endures in the death penalty and many torturous conditions of confinement. Oddly enough, then, the rise of prisons is coupled with two major upheavals—the rise of the word freedom to stand in for what’s desirable and the rise of civic activists to stand up for who’s dispossessed.

The relationship of prison to dispossession has been well studied. Wedged between ethics and the law, the justification for putting people behind bars rests on the premise that as a consequence of certain actions, some people should lose all freedom (which we can define in this instance as control over one’s bodily habits, pastimes, relationships, and mobility). It takes muscular political capacity to realize widescale dispossession of people who have formal rights, and historically those who fill prisons have collectively lacked political clout commensurate with the theoretical power that rights suggest (see, e.g., Dayan 1999). In contrast, during most of the modern history of prisons, those officially devoid of rights—indigenous and enslaved women and men, for example, or new immigrants, or married white women—rarely saw the inside of a cage, because their unfreedom was guaranteed by other means (Christianson 1998; E. B. Freedman 1996).

But what about crime? Doesn’t prison exist because there are criminals? Yes and no. While common sense suggests a natural connection between “crime” and “prison,” what counts as crime in fact changes, and what happens to people convicted of crime does not, in all times and places, result in prison sentences. Defined in the simple terms of the secular state, crime means a violation of the law. Laws change, depending on what, in a social order, counts as stability, and who, in a social order, needs to be controlled. Let’s look at a range of examples. After the Civil War, an onslaught of legal maneuvers designed to guarantee the cheap availability of southern Black people’s labor outlawed both “moving around” and “standing still” (Franklin 1998), and convicts worked without choice or compensation to build the region’s infrastructure and industrial system (A. Lichtenstein 1996; B.M. Wilson 2000a). From the 1890s onward, a rush of Jim Crow laws both fed on earlier labor-focused statutes and sparked the
nationwide apartheid craze. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1919) prohibited the manufacture, import, export, or sale of intoxicating liquors, at a time when most drugs that are now illegal were not (Lusane 1991). In Texas, driving while drinking alcohol is legal, whereas a marijuana seed can put a person in prison for life. Prostitution is legal in some places. In others, the remedy for theft is restitution, not a cage. Murder is the result of opportunity, motive, and means, and the fact of a killing begins rather than ends an inquiry into the shifting legal nature of such a loss. Numerous histories and criminological treatises show shifts over time in what crime is and why it matters (see, e.g., Linebaugh 1992; Christianson 1998). Contemporary comparative studies demonstrate how societies that are relatively similar—industrialized, diverse, largely immigrant—differ widely in their assessments and experience of disorderly behavior and the remedies for what’s generally accepted as wrong (Archer and Gartner 1984). As we can see that crime is not fixed, it follows that crime’s relationship to prisons is the outcome of social theory and practice, rather than the only possible source of stability through control.