The Carceral State

California gets called “progressive” despite operating one of the world’s largest prison systems. 

“Abolition is not simply a reaction to the [prison-industrial complex] but a political commitment that makes the PIC impossible” writes Eric A. Stanley in the introduction to Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. Nourishing these possibilities to create a future in which incarceration and policing are not normalized features of our society has been at the core of Stanley’s academic writing and activist work. A president postdoctoral fellow in the departments of communication and critical gender studies at the University of California, San Diego, Stanley works at the intersections of radical trans/queer politics and prison abolition. Stanley has directed the films Homotopia (2006) and Criminal Queers (2013) along with Chris Vargas. Stanley talks to the New Inquiry about California’s incarceration culture and those who resist it, how language shapes our imagining of a post-incarceration world and the importance of queering our conversations around the prison-­industrial complex.

What is unique about the Californian narrative of incarceration and policing? How has the history of California been shaped by the prison-industrial complex?

California is in many ways emblematic of our current moment of U.S. empire. Our stage of late liberalism allows California to proclaim itself both the most “progressive” state while simultaneously producing among the most brutal carceral practices. We can look to California and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) as a cautionary tale of how even well-meaning prison reform almost always produces more violence, rather than stopping it.

To understand how “progressive California” became the way we talk about the operators of one of the largest prison systems in the world, we could look to the recent Proposition 47, the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” for an example. It is championed by many state prison-­reform groups because it claims it will help pull some people out of prisons and jails through resentencing of what the legislation calls “nonserious nonviolent” inmates.

And it might! At first glance, this seems like something that all of us fighting against the prison-industrial complex (PIC) could support. We know that decarceration is one strategy in the long vision that is abolition. However, written into the proposition is a provision that would mandate all the “savings” from releasing people be placed into a fund that would increase police presence in schools and mandate harsher truancy discipline. What looks like a victory in our struggle would actually build up rather than dismantle the PIC.

As a response to the infamous overcrowding of California’s prisons, this is something we know would ­reimprison 10,000 people, even if 10,000 people are released. Overcrowding is not a malfunction of the prison-­industrial complex, it’s how it’s designed.

For a more exacting account of California’s carceral topography, I would defer to Ruthie Gilmore’s amazing book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. There, Ruthie helps us understand how labor and land are central to California’s prison growth but often overlooked. While it seems obvious that capitalism is a big part of the story of imprisonment, Golden Gulag helps push against the understanding that it is only important at the level of a defendant’s ability to fight charges. Identifying a structuring logic of the prison-industrial complex, Ruthie suggests her book is about “class war,” and it is.

I am interested in “exacting accounts.” I think about the prison-industrial complex especially in considering who collects and distributes information about it, and the specificity required in describing what it is. How does this enumeration, calculation, and collecting further serve the prison-industrial complex? 

As example we might look at the National Crime Victim Survey, a database funneled through the Bureau of Justice, is currently the only space where national “biased” violence is aggregated. While having some important information, the database is little more than a misrecognition of the forms of structural abandonment and direct attack many people face everyday. Some have argued that if the reporting or vectors could be corrected we would have a more accurate representation of who is targeted for these kinds of harm.

But I want us to undo the argument that more information or research necessarily produces more liberation. We have elaborate data on incarceration rates for black people in the U.S., and we know that this research has done nothing to curtail the reality that the prison-industrial complex functions as antiblackness. Even if statistics show how the prison-industrial complex is constitutively anti-trans and anti-black, they don’t halt it.

I think you’re right. We’ve always known this information, but that information by itself is not liberatory. Beyond the information we have about the functioning of the PIC, I am also interested in the information we have about movements challenging the PIC. I think it is easy to conflate the myriad of struggles against the PIC and this conflation can obscure the work of distinct activist organizations.

I spent a little over a year with Critical Resistance, where I learned about the distinction between a ­prison-reform movement and a prison-abolition movement. For those who conceptualize prison reform in terms of more rehabilitation programs or the ending of mandatory minimums, how does your work for prison abolition differ from prison reform? What’s the difference between asserting that the prison system is broken versus the assertion that is working as it is designed to function?

While usually suspicious of the work of binary oppositions, I think the distinction between reform and abolition is vital. When they become confused, we end up with people arguing that Prop 47 is going to “solve the problem of mass incarceration.” If we say that the prison system is working as designed, that is, as a set of antiblack, ableist, and ­gender-normative practices used to constrict, and at times liquidate, people and communities under the empty signifiers of “justice” and “safety,” then we can more adequately assess what something like Prop 47 will actually do: Trade a few of the prison system’s current hostages for an expansion into schools.

We often arrive at the idea that the system is “broken” not because we have such a strong attachment to the state, but because we have a scarcity of language around the intensity of its violence. One of the ways its common sense remains entrenched is in our collective inability to articulate the enormity of our current conditions. Instead we—myself included—most often use language that is readily available, helping sabotage our own chances of living otherwise.

In concrete terms, what does it mean to continue believing that the prison system is “broken”?

If we believe that the prison system is broken, then we must also believe in its ability to be fixed. Here we can see how the PIC keeps functioning through the rehearsal of the “broken system” narrative. As Angela Davis and many others have argued, it is precisely through reform that the ­prison-industrial complex expands. We can see the materiality of this expansion through the mandatory increase in police in schools through Proposition 47.

I was born and raised in California and I know this proposition would affect my old students and family members so let’s talk about Prop 47. It is on the November 4 ballot. If it is approved by the state’s voters, it would reduce the classification of most “nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from a felony to a misdemeanor. How do you respond to people who say this reform, however small, is better than nothing at all?

In abolitionist work we sometimes talk about nonreformist reforms to think about the distance between people getting their immediate needs met, or their conditions made less unlivable, and the political worlds we want. Under our regime of racial capitalism, perhaps all we can inhabit is a set of shifting contradictions. Given this, one of the questions we try to continually ask is, “Will this reform be something we have to fight against in five years?” For me, this is how I determine if the compromise is too dangerous. In the case of California’s Proposition 47, I’m not convinced it will actually lead to the release of people and will instead further involve schools as punitive practices.

Focusing our efforts only on, and in the name of “nonviolent and nonserious” incarcerated people can also work to reaffirm the assumed serious and inescapable violence of those still inside. Are we willing to always allow the state to decide what constitutes the limits of “violence”? Under Proposition 47, someone who defrauds an entire community out of their homes may be considered “nonviolent,” while someone who blocks their own home from being foreclosed could remain imprisoned as a violent offender.

I want to talk more about the abolitionist vision and the construction of the “violent” and “nonviolent” offenders, as well as accountability. 

A tiring critique of prison abolition that can make even a self-identified radical sound like a mouthpiece for the right is that if we abolish the PIC, we will all be subject to greater risks of harm. In response to this assertion, it is important to note at least two related points.

First, the most dangerous, violent people in our society are not in prison, but are running our military, government, prisons, and banks. Secondly, what we have now, even for people who have caused harm, is a form of nonaccountability where the survivors of a violation are often harmed again through the desires of a district attorney whose only interest is conviction rates. Anyone who has been deposed or been through a trial can attest to this. Abolition is not simply about letting everyone out of prison, as our critics like to suggest, although that would be an important component. It is forged in the work of daring to ask what true accountability, justice, and safety might look and feel like and what are the ways we might build our world now so violence in all its forms is decreased, rather than something that we only attend to post-infraction.

I am interested in how we move toward abolition. Who are the people challenging the normalization of incarceration? Can you talk to us about local movements around prison abolition? And beyond California, what work is being done?

I have to first give a shout-out to the Transgender, Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project based here in San Francisco. TGIJP is an organization by and for formerly incarcerated trans women of color, held down by Miss Major, Janetta Johnson, and others. I think what is unique about TGIJP is that unlike some antiprison organizations that tokenize currently or formerly incarcerated people, they center them in every aspect of their work. TGIJP is also working hard on re-entry for trans women as abolitionist work. When people are released, especially those with felonies, the issues that found them in the prison industrial complex are dramatically compounded. With almost no resources, people get released into situations that are hyper-policed, and more often than not people get swept back up in the system.

I would also point people toward Californians for a Responsible Budget (CURP), a statewide coalition of people and organizations fighting jail and prison expansion all over the state. As you know, there are also chapters of Critical Resistance in Los Angeles and Oakland that continue to push toward abolition in a culture where compromise is often the most we can expect.

I’m also excited by all the work being done in less formal ways, by collectives of people like Black and Pink-San Diego, a prison letter-writing group, and Gay Shame, which I have organized with for the past 12 years. With Gay Shame, we keep trying to show the ways the prison industrial complex is ever-expanding and how LGBT people are at times complicit in its proliferation. As the banner at our last action read, we are pro-sex, anti-prison, queers for abolition.

In Captive Genders, you write that this prison abolition work and trans/queer liberation must be grown together. How are these movements mutually dependent?

In the past few decades, we have seen the mainstream LGBT movement fight hard to become part of the same systems of domination that have already destroyed so much. Most visibly, this fight toward inclusion resides in the legalization of gay marriage, military service, and the expansion of hate crimes legislation on both the state and federal level. When I was writing the introduction to Captive Genders, I wanted to help (with many others) redirect resources and organizing toward abolitionist work, and also remember the histories of trans and queer people, particularly low-income and/or of color, who have always fought against policing and incarceration. In other words, I wanted to mark both the unique moment of the organizing and analysis that Captive Genders gathers up, and also the ways we are in a genealogy of struggle that will continue beyond us.

I have also been involved in various abolitionist projects over the past decade that did not necessarily foreground trans/queer politics. I think in similar ways I wanted to push trans/queer organizing to center abolition, I wanted to push antiprison organizing to include a trans/queer analysis that understood the specific ways trans/queer people of color have been and continue to be targets of the prison industrial complex.

Both Nat [Smith] and I began the project knowing that we wanted it to be an explicitly abolitionist text. As it was the first book that centered the ways trans/queer people experience the PIC, we wanted to foreground a radical analysis. We also had a commitment to making space for currently and formerly incarcerated people while not wanting to rehearse the somewhat false division between theory and practice.

In the introduction to Captive Genders, you write that “among the most volatile points of contact between state violence and one’s body is the domain of gender.” You’ve also written about how prisons are gendering institutions as well as queer spaces. How does this happen simultaneously? What are some examples of this resistance to gender normativity within prisons?

Binary genders (male/female) are not something that pre-exist any institution (like prisons) but are produced and reproduced in their moment of interaction. In other words, the imagined stability of only two genders is part of the work of prisons. Not only are prisons gender segregated, but quotidian practice inside mandates the group fantasy of gender normativity. This is a bit of a different argument than suggesting that we only pay attention to the ways prisons treat trans/queer and gender nonconforming people, although we also need to do that. Yet even against the relentless force of punitive gender normativity, people still find ways to resist and embody, although perhaps protracted, gender self-determination in these spaces of suspended death.

These usually take the form of what might look like small moments of resistance, but are the daily material that allow some people to survive the unsurvivable. For example, I have a friend who was inside a “women’s prison” and she sewed boxer shorts out of sheets for her butch and trans masculine friends because they could not legally obtain them as they were not regulation in “women’s prisons.” People also find ways to do their hair, get or make cosmetics and other things that help them express whatever gender they are feeling. Resistance also comes in the ways people inside are in leadership positions of many “outside” organizations, like Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Justice Now and California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP).

We know the prison-industrial complex exists along a continuum, from the ways that people are policed and criminalized, to the point of trial and incarceration, to the moment of reentry. How does the prison industrial complex affect the lives of queer/trans folks living outside the physical site of the prison?

When people first started using the term “prison industrial complex” it was an attempt to think about all the ways the prison as a force exists far beyond its walls. While we want to be vigilant in our attention to the condition of those inside, we always want to be aware of the various ways people are policed, criminalized and constricted that may seem less obvious. Through this expanded understanding of the PIC we must look at psychiatric imprisonment, public housing, shelters, Native boarding schools, drug treatment and diversion programs, juvenile facilities, ICE detention centers (and more) as all central to our work as abolitionists.

In an essay called “Near Life, Queer Death,” you address the privatizing of violence. In thinking about the landscape of Californian incarceration, in ways does the “privatization [of] the enormity of antiqueer violence” collude with the privatization of the enormity of mass incarceration and policing in California?

I would perhaps think about the different ways privatization is working in each of these scenes. Much antiprison organizing for the past 15 to 20 years has centered around critiquing the ways private prisons produce wealth through the business of captivity. I remember organizing in the 1990s at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz where I was a student because our cafeteria contracted with Sodexho Marriott, which then had stakes in CCA, a private prison firm. That work was and continues to be necessary, but only as a way to open up conversations beyond the private-prisons argument. If we end there, it can seem as if we think prisons run by the state are “better” and that prisons are only troublesome if they produce surplus value. Again, this is where an abolitionist analysis becomes necessary to push us through the private prisons argument and toward a more general critique.

In “Near Life, Queer Death,” I was trying to think about how structural violence (like racist and anti-trans violence) is rewritten as individual acts against specific people. The legal system is one of the primary ways the systemic is transformed into the discrete or personal. This happens, in part, through the substitution of the idea that justice has been done with a conviction by the state.

We might look at the recent attack against Sasha, an agender youth who was riding a bus in Alameda when their skirt was lit on fire by another 16-year-old. Sasha sustained second and third degree burns in yet another attack against a gender-nonconforming person. Seeking an easy conviction, the district attorney decided to charge the defendant as an adult and forced them to take a plea deal, which could now place them in prison for seven years. Sasha and their family asked the DA to not charge the person as an adult and also asked for restorative justice for the defendant and not prison time. Against the desires of the survivor, the DA refused and sought the conviction by way of a plea. The histories and futures of anti-trans violence become substituted with the “justice” of another conviction, while all those involved are left as collateral damage.