What Happened to California’s Prison Movement?

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2015: New Folsom State Prison, Represa, California, Level IV maximum security, B-yard. General population approximately 190; EOP, PSU, ad-seg approximately 800. 

It’s almost been two years since some thirty thousand prisoners went on hunger strike to protest indefinite solitary confinement. The novelty of a recent settlement in Asker vs. Brown now threatens to release some 1,500 or better prisoners from California’s notorious Security Housing Unit (SHU). 

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For decades, the SHU had been a device of control, arbitrarily used to contain and isolate some of the state’s most influential prisoners. In some opinions these were the worst of the worst. They were said to be the most violent, uncontrollable and irredeemable group of ruffians ever to walk the prison yard. Radical, they were a mixture of the extreme right, extreme left. Revolutionaries?

The general fear amongst the prison staff was “the violence is coming back!” referring to a time during the 1970-1980s when the murder of correctional guards ran rampant throughout the California prison system. Law & Order was again about to be challenged by the revolutionary tempest of the likes of George Jackson. Measures had to be taken to reinforce control. 

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What happened thereafter would be a death kneel to all resistance to oppression in the California prison system. Overnight the most violent, uncontrollable and influential would be subjected to a well concocted scheme to control them even more once released from the SHU by manipulating their hope in an effort to douse the flame of their resistance with a scheme to proclaim to rehabilitate them. 

First came the return of the family visits. An old plantation strategy, lifers were now again eligible for a 48-hour pass. Instantly, many comrades who were former gangsters and pimps went “tinder” for a shot of that “sweet” with their prison wives. Next, maximum security overrides were dangled like a carrot on a stick, incentivizing good behavior in exchange for a transfer to a lower security. The deal was, you bring a year clean, no write-up’s, and despite your security classification or sentence, you would get dropped down to a medium or minimum security. Almost overnight, some of the most violent and most radical of California prisoners with the highest security classifications, became model inmates or as they are commonly referred to throughout the prison system, “programmers”. All this however wasn’t enough. 

To forestall the mounting pressure from both incarcerated and outside prison reform organizations and the slew of criminal justice reform advocates, a number of Senate Bills and propositions would be passed to reinforce the incentive to program. Senate Bill 261 and Prop 57, for example, intensified hope and suddenly those who had lost it and never thought they could regain their freedom, now had an incentive to program. And with that finally came parole reform. The talk on the yard was, “Hey did you hear about such-and-such who got granted parole? Man! I know if he can get out… I can!” Thereafter, a token-based system of parole grants would follow and the old slaves went to work programming the new ones. How so? 

The old slave, like the convict, was an agent of socialization. The new slave, or fish, arrived on the plantation (prison) with little, if any, understanding of the accepted rules of conduct. Nor had he any reference to its value system, that is, what are the accepted norms or medium of exchange; what activities are to be placed in esteem, Etc. All this and more was to be put to him by the old slave to accept without questioning whether or not these rules, values, Etc were counterproductive to obtaining his freedom. So what would happen is, the fish hit the yard only to be conditioned by other older prisoners who themselves had not developed the ability to put in perspective the function they served to uphold the very institution that was oppressing them.

In essence, what the foregoing serves to illustrate is how, when some 1,500 prisoners were released from the SHU, California prison administrators began pulling the puppets’ strings in a calculated effort to diffuse resistance. In other words, the most violent, the most radical… we’re now being used as agents of socialization to further CDC[r]’s agenda to propagate a pretentious rehabilitative scheme aimed at neutralizing not only prisoner resistance inside but so too that of thier outside cohorts. 

This scheme was nothing new. Contemporary history shows that during the 1940s-1970’s, the California Department of Corrections would effectively extinguish efforts to reform/abolish prisons by implementing the exact same strategy: co-opting underground prisoner educational organizations and transforming them into (Army) therapy self-help groups, then doling out token parole and commutation grants to lifers (and LWOPs), legislative changes, Etc. Notably, the department would eventually declare rehabilitation a joke, ineffective and suspended all attempts at reform, prisoner or otherwise. 

Today, some seven years after the historic hunger strikes, the general attitude on the yard is not that of resistance but compliance. The old convicts are now “programmers” advocating for participation in self-help groups, non-designated (protective custody) yards, and mental health treatment with psychotropic drugs to support their addictions. The irony? They are blinded by hope and thus refuse to acknowledge a history demonstrating a ploy to maintain control and defuse the people’s demand for real change/abolition of a system hell-bent on concealing the fact that crime is not an individual problem or choice but rather a systematic institutional development that wantonly entraps millions of Americans to support the prison industrial complex.


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